On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act to Congress. In his remarks, he stated “[a]t times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem. Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have the right to vote…..”
After passage of the Voting Rights Act, voter participation in the South increased dramatically, particularly among black voters. Unfortunately, voter turnout rates have declined over the last fifty years. In 2018, Arkansas ranked 49th in voter turnout based on its voter eligible population (2,171,940). Only 50.38% (898,793) of registered voters (1,784,015) cast ballots in November 2018 and almost 400,000 (387,925) eligible voters were not registered. Based on U.S. Elections Project data, Arkansas, in 2018, had more than 1.2 million eligible voters who did not participate in the election. Whatever the reason, most eligible voters in Arkansas, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or party, are simply just not voting. This can’t be what a functioning democracy looks like and does not honor the sacrifices made to expand voting rights over the last two hundred years.
In his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas relates an event witnessed by Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland at the Constitutional Convention. As Benjamin Franklin emerged from the building on the last day of the convention, he was approached by a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia. According to Dr. McHenry, Mrs. Powell asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well doctor, what have we got? A republic or monarchy?” Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.”
What did Franklin mean? Author Eric Metaxas suggests (and I agree) that the “Constitution was a pointer to something beyond itself, a promise … one that could be broken or kept by the people to whom it was entrusted.” It is the people who must “keep it”. We, the people, must be the keepers of the flame of liberty and the promise of our democracy.
While there are numerous other ways to be civically engaged, there are few activities more impactful than voting. When we don’t vote, we cede to others the power to control our communities and our destiny. However, despite the low voter participation rate, I believe people, particularly the young, care deeply about their communities. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) poll found that almost two-thirds of young Americans (18-29) are fearful about the future of democracy. (Harvard IOP Youth Poll Spring 2019). Despite their fears for our democracy and concerns over the moral direction of our country, young people care deeply about their communities, see community service as honorable (70%), and as a more efficient and personal way of making a change. (Harvard IOP poll – April 2014). Our challenge is to connect that passion for community service with the act of voting. We must remind each other of the value and importance of voting as a tool for social change and that – Voting Is Not Just A Right – It’s A Responsibility.