My last post on voting drew some interesting questions in my comment box that I would like to address here. I do not mean to be getting into political stuff too much, but it is important and it is something where (unlike theology) there is room for a vast amount of differing opinions and no specific right answer, though there certainly are a variety of wrong answers!
How do you respond to the claim that you cannot complain about the actions of the elected government if you did not vote? It makes a bit of sense to me.
This argument does seem to have some sense to it on the surface, and it is hard to have a comeback to this if you have not taken a lot of time to think about this issue. As I wrestled with this question over the past week, I came to the conclusion that this argument is bad for two reasons.
First, it is ultimately saying that only those who participate in electing the government have a right to complain about it, but fails to distinguish that though many people may vote in an election, only the majority actually elects the government. If there are two candidates, only one can win. What about the minority whose candidate lost? Can they not complain? After all, technically, they had nothing to do with electing the person in power since they voted for somebody else, yet nobody suggests that people who voted for a losing candidate cannot complain...in fact, it is commonly accepted that they have even more cause to complain because their complaints then have an added "See, I told you so" strength to them. This does not really prove why people who do not vote have a positive right to complain, but only shows that the argument that they can't complain is illogical.
Second, if voting is the criteria for who can complain, are we going to suggest that children under the age of 18 cannot complain about the political system? I doubt it: teens are commonly encouraged to understand and critique the political system as a type of initiation into the responsibilities of political citizenship that come with attaining majority.
Third, we could point out that most people don't vote in their city elections, or for the school board, things like that. The numbers are that around 75% of people do not vote locally. If that is the case, then we can retort that most people would then have no right to complain about their local school districts, local road construction projects, local scandals or anything else locally. Of course, if any of these people are caught in the midst of an irritating and useless construction jam, they will still complain anyway, even if they didn't vote for the County Road Commissioner, and they will still feel justified in complaining if the actions of government are inconveniencing them, whether or not they voted. That is my point and the crux of this post: if somebody suffers because of government, the burden is on government to explain why it is harming people, not on us to justify why we are complaining.
But can we establish a positive right to complain apart from showing that denying that right to people who don't vote is illogical? Well, anybody has the right to complain about anything anytime they please-that's one of our First Amendment rights, and actually, the right to criticize the government was closer to what the Founder had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment (as opposed to those who interpret it to justify smut and filth).
But beyond our First Amendment right, I'd say that the argument "if you didn't vote don't complain" suffers from a very fundamental flaw: it mistakes the act of voting for the totality of participation in government. In other words, participating means nothing over and above the act of voting. We are encouraged in the Catechism to "actively participate" (ugghh...nice choice of words, huh?) in our government. What is active participation? Many would reduce the idea of participation to voting alone. This is a gross misunderstanding of what participation in government is. If voting alone were participation, then why did the Founders restrict the franchise so narrowly? Voting was originally accorded only to property-owning males. How could they claim to set up a government "by the people and for the people" if voting was so stringently restricted? Modernist interpretation would just say that it was because the Founders were all racists and hypocrites. Or perhaps they had a different understanding of participation than we do now?
So what is our expanded definition of participation? First and foremost, the right to criticize the government, which has been denied people in totalitarian countries. The right to freely discuss and talk about politics without fear or recrimination and to publish your ideas. The right to form organizations for the end of influencing the political system or attaining political goals. The right to run for political office yourself. The right and ability to contact your congressman and make your grievances known to him. The right to know what is going on in government and to make all government records public. The right to be treated fairly and humanely by your government and to protest when you are not treated fairly. The right to be educated about politics and make yourself knowledgeable about our own political system and about the abstract concepts of politics in general. All of these rights can be exercised apart from the right to vote. A person could still do all of these things and not vote, as I know many Catholics do. In fact, I'd say a person who does all of these things but refrains from voting participates in government much more than a person who only votes and doesn't do anything else mentioned above. Therefore, the idea that voting alone constitutes participation is fatally flawed. It may be important, but it is not the only thing.
Our second person asked this question in response to my comment that most people were too ignorant to vote:
I should be delighted to know what criteria you would propose to determine voter competence. Suppose, for example, only citizens who have completed post-graduate studies were allowed to vote. I think the outcome of the upcoming presidential election would be quite clear in that case. And if that is not a good criterion, would you instead require a minimum income?
No, I would not require a minimum level of education nor any sort of minimum income, per se. With this question, we must distinguish between what I would propose in a vastly different, perfect society, or what I would propose realistically in our current system.
In a perfect world, I would propose as criteria for voting the solemn recitation of the Nicene Creed before the Blessed Sacrament, coupled with an abjuration of Communism and another solemn, deprecatory oath upholding the truthfulness of one's profession. That would be ideal. The goal (in my mind) is to make sure that only moral people are voting, and I think this would be a good way.
But, realistically, that would not be feasible in our current system. I realize now, however, that when I said most people were too incompetent to vote, I was not primarily referring to intellectual capacity (as our commentator said, if only people with advanced degrees could vote, we know how that would go); rather, I think I was referring to one's moral trustworthiness. We want people to vote who have good morals and will not compromise them. Ultimately, I want people who have Christian morals to vote and everybody else to stay home. I don't care if certain persons are disenfranchised, because I don't see voting as an ultimate good. But anyhow, what criteria would I propose for voting in our current system?
1) A property qualification: you must own some kind of property. Some may object that this is the same as an income qualification. It is insofar as you must have some kind of income to purchase property, but it is not the same thing. There are a lot of poor people out there who own their own home, because their homes are in cities where property is cheap, like Flint, MI.
2) An oath of loyalty to the Constitution, much like our military personnel swear upon enlistment. It would not stop subversives from voting, but it would at least remind people of what a serious matter voting was.
3) 100 hours of community service prior to being allowed to register to vote
4) You must have been a citizen in this nation for a least 4 years prior to being allowed to register (this would apply only to immigrants, not to people born here). In other words, you can't vote as soon as you get your citizenship. You have to live as a citizen for four years before being allowed to exercise that right.
5) You must not be enrolled in welfare (not counting unemployment or disability) and must have been off of welfare for at least one year. We have to restore the unity between voting and responsibility, which is opposed to our modern concept of voting as some unconditional good which is inalienable.
In addition to these qualifications, I would propose the following changes to our existing system:
1) As one person suggested in the comment box, military service would accord one the right to vote irrespective of all of these other requirements (except 2, which is part of military enlistment).
2) Voting would not be a "have it or don't have it" type of thing where you either can vote unconditionally or you can't ever. It would be like a license: it could be suspended for certain things and then regranted (like it would be suspended while a person went on welfare).
3) In keeping with number 2, I don't think felons ought to universally lose their right to vote forever. They ought to get it back ten years after their release from prison, provided they meet the five requirements above.
4) If a person who could vote failed to exercise their right for a period of six years, it would be revoked and would only be regranted in exchange for another 100 hours of community service and a fine.
I'm sure I could think of a lot more things, but these are some preliminary ideas. Many of you will probably think they are stupid, and I welcome any critiques or complaints (or compliments!). Designing ideal political systems is a venerable and ancient tradition in Western Culture.