Your Vote Counts

Civic responsibility is not a new concept for Latter-day Saints. Church leaders have stressed its importance from the beginning, and members have been actively involved as concerned citizens or political candidates throughout history--even the Prophet Joseph made a run for the White House in 1844. One of the most significant statements about the Church's relationship with government came when, on August 17, 1835, at a general assembly of the Church in Kirtland, Ohio, Church leaders unanimously approved a declaration of belief regarding governments and laws in general so that "our belief with regard to earthly governments and laws in general may not be misinterpreted nor misunderstood." This declaration became section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants, with verse 1 stating, "We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society." *Voter Turnout* With powerful modern scripture declaring our accountability, and Church leaders consistently encouraging us to vote our conscience, it seems logical that Latter-day Saints would be anxious to take part in the democratic process; however, a recent study by the U.S. Census implies otherwise. According to the study, Utah, with an LDS population that is estimated to be 62.4 percent, ranked 51st in voter turnout (36.7 percent) in the last general elections--behind all fifty states and Washington, D.C. The state also ranked third to last when it came to voter registration. Whether the low numbers are due to skepticism, apathy, busy lifestyle, or some combination of these factors, the study doesn't say. Regardless, it demonstrates the casual attitude that many Americans, some LDS included, have come to adopt toward the democratic process. In fact, voter turnout in the U.S. has rarely exceeded 60 percent in the last century. And unlike the days past when political parties paid voters in cash, or offered a barrel of flour or keg of whiskey to those who cast a ballot in their favor (live pigs were given to voters during the 1890 New Hampshire Congressional race), U.S. voters now have little incentive to cast their ballot unless they view the act as a duty and a privilege. This election season, Americans have seen history in the making. With an African-American, woman, and Mormon as strong presidential candidates throughout the primaries, and the first black presidential nominee, it has been easy to see how much progress the U.S. has made in the last century. Until 1920, a woman could not vote, let alone be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. Likewise, it wasn't until 1965 that the National Voting Rights Act outlawed the discriminatory practices that were responsible for the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. But even with the historic nature of this November's presidential election, voter turnout may not be as high as one might expect, if you use history as a predictor. For example, in 1960, 63 percent of eligible citizens voted. According to the Federal Election Commission, by 1996 that number had dropped to 49 percent; however, voter turnout for the 2004 elections rose to nearly 57 percent--the highest since 1968 and possibly driven by the war in Iraq and the razor-thin victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000. To increase voter turnout in the U.S., some are lobbying to make the process of voting easier and more accessible--by allowing voting over the Internet, for example. But a study of voter turnout in Switzerland by economist Patricia Funk suggests that making voting more convenient may actually have the opposite effect. After voter participation began to slip in Switzerland, the mail-in ballot was introduced, with each citizen receiving a ballot in the mail--no voter registration required. So, did this increase the number of ballots cast? Surprisingly, no. Despite the ease of the process, voter turnout actually decreased. *A Case Study* Many people don't vote because they believe their ballot won't make a difference in the overall election results. Some feel that no matter who is in office, nothing ever changes. And others have become disillusioned by the political process as they watch candidates spend millions of dollars, mount personal attacks on their opponents, and make deals with special interest groups to win their endorsements--to the point that neither candidate appeals to them, and they wash their hands of any voter participation. But in the end, these attitudes only contribute to the problem further. In his article entitled "Why Vote?" Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, wrote, "When voting is voluntary, and the chance that the result will be determined by any single person's vote is extremely low, even the smallest cost--for example, the time it takes to stroll down to the polling place, wait in line, and cast a ballot--is sufficient to make voting seem irrational. Yet, if many people follow this line of reasoning, and do not vote, a minority of the population can determine a country's future, leaving a discontented majority." Singer then sites Poland's electoral history as an example. He writes, "In the 2005 national elections, barely 40 percent of those eligible voted . . . As a result, Jaroslaw Kaczynski was able to become prime minister . . . despite receiving only six million votes out of a total of thirty million eligible voters." Two years later, when Kaczynski was up for re-election, voters turned out in greater numbers, and he was heavily defeated. *Compulsory Voting* To ensure that the majority of the population has indeed spoken, many countries have adopted a policy of compulsory, or mandatory, voting. For instance, Belgium subjects eligible voters to fines if they do not cast a ballot. If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for ten years, not to mention the significant obstacles they can encounter when looking for employment in the public sector. Similarly, Australia implemented a system of compulsory voting in 1924 because voter turnout had fallen below 60 percent. Citizens who fail to vote receive a letter of inquiry, and those without legitimate excuses must pay a fine. Likewise, in Greece, failing to vote makes it difficult for citizens to obtain documents like passports or driver's licenses. And in Peru, voters must present a voting card for several months after an election in order to obtain certain goods and services. Interestingly, both the Netherlands and Venezuela abandoned the compulsory voting system in 1967 and 1993, respectively. Voter turnout in the subsequent election decreased by approximately 20 percent in the Netherlands, and Venezuela experienced a drop of nearly 30 percent. *Before You Vote* Your vote is your voice--your chance to represent yourself in local, state, and federal elections. The candidates and causes you believe in cannot be guaranteed success without your vote. But before you go to the polls, here are some things to consider: *Register* If you aren't registered to vote already, there may still be time! In many states, voters must register thirty days before an election, but not all states have this requirement. Call your county clerk's office to find out if you still have time, and how to register. Or, register online at websites like declareyourself.org or justvote.org. *Educate Yourself* You can't choose the best candidate if you can't make an educated vote. Don't depend on other people to explain the issues to you, or tell you which candidate believes what. Find out for yourself. In your mind, what are the major issues your country faces? What issues is each candidate emphasizing? And what solutions are each offering? In addition to their positions, consider the character of the candidates. Ask yourself questions like, "Why do I trust one candidate more than another? What are their perceived strengths and weaknesses? And who do they associate with?" Websites like ontheissues.org provide detailed voting records of many U.S. politicians, including John McCain and Barack Obama. In addition, both presidential candidates (and most politicians) have their own websites where they state their positions on a number of important issues. Check out barackobama.com/issues and johnmccain.com/informing/issues to learn more about the presidential candidates. *Keep Emotions in Check* Studies show that emotions heavily impact most voting decisions. Try to set emotions aside as you watch campaign ads, and don't get sucked in with catchy slogans. Instead, scrutinize them to see if they actually increase your understanding of the candidate and his ability to make tough decisions. What are the 2008 presidential candidates' campaign slogans? Barack Obama: Change we need. John McCain: Country first. Also consider if you're voting for a candidate because of one specific issue. Is that the only reason? Or do you share his or her overall vision for your country and community? *Get Involved* After you have chosen to support a candidate, don't be afraid to get involved in his or her campaign. Donate money, work the phones, stuff envelopes, or volunteer other talents. Someone is going to be elected--it may as well be the person you believe is best for the job. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of a presidential election, but don't forget the state and local elections. You involvement will have the greatest impact on your local community as you campaign for city council members, school board members, and other local officials. Better yet, become a candidate yourself. The surest way to improve the political system is for good, honest people to enter the race and raise the standards for politicians. The ballot is our connection to our country's political process. It provides us with a way to express to our leaders what we think about a number of important issues that affect not only our lives, but the lives of future generations. Voting also serves to protect our freedoms--a democracy can't survive unless its citizens participate in the political process. So go to the polls, let your voice be heard, and leave your own mark on history, wherever you live. *Bring Your Kids!* Did you know that the single factor that most influences whether a young person will vote is whether his or her parents vote? So don't be afraid to bring your children with you to the polls. It may be less convenient, but children can learn a lot from the experience, and it will make it less intimidating for them when it comes time to cast their own ballots when they reach legal age. When you bring your kids with you to the polls, it also provides a perfect opportunity for you to discuss politics and important issues with them. *The Church and Political Neutrality* Coupled with the belief in the importance of civic responsibility comes the Church's longstanding policy of political neutrality. On lds.org it reads, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics. This applies in all of the many nations in which it is established." To illustrate this point, President Harold B. Lee recounted a meeting he had with a president of the United States (he didn't disclose which one) in which he "assured him that no matter what his name or his political party, we [the Church] were frequently on our knees, praying God that he and the leaders of this nation and of the world would bring us through the crises of the present" (Ensign, July 1972, 29).
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