The Values of Voting

PERIODICALLY, the U.S. political scene is subjected to a ritual of readjustment at the hands of eligible and willing voters. Our particular species of democracy rests enormous weight on the electoral process and has regularly made elections the litmus test of a functioning democracy in other countries.

Many of us who are still waiting for this system of representative democracy to birth "liberty and justice for all" recognize the complex layers of reality attached to the voting process. We know very well that, in spite of repeated efforts at campaign reform and attempts at exacting a measure of ethical and social accountability from elected officials, those who run for office almost by definition have to come from among the most privileged in our society, and rarely have life experience in any measure like that of the majority in our land.

We know too the tremendous influence of money before, during, and after election day. While the United States has witnessed little overt fraud in the balloting process, political power here is manipulated and controlled in more subtle and equally effective ways. Some of us harbor a deep skepticism about the capacity of our system to produce elected officials willing to make decisions independent of special interests. Then why do some people choose to vote?

Perhaps it is an affirmation of the possibility of redemption. Perhaps it is an abiding belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity. Perhaps we are trying to claim whatever measure of value and justice remains in our political tradition. Perhaps it is hope or foolishness or a willingness to risk disappointment once again, or an unwillingness to risk at all.

From time to time, we say, we have heard truth spoken in high places and have seen the consequences. Occasionally our hearts have risen to the witness of a visionary in office. Some of us remember the pain of exclusion from the voting process and the long hard struggle to crack open that door.

Two experiences of my own keep me moving toward the ballot box, however reluctantly:

  • In Haiti (1990) and Mexico (1994) I served as an election observer. In those places, especially in Haiti, I witnessed a people surmount obstacles-illiteracy, distance and impossible transportation, corruption, and threatened violence-to express their opinion. I saw extremely poor people, determined to participate in decisions that would affect their lives, manage the polling process with amazing fortitude and skill. I saw a jubilant people work their will, even for a time, on the powers that be. I saw the people of Haiti elect Jean Bertrand Aristide to serve as their president-against the will of the United States, brutal security forces, an intransigent and powerful elite, and the church.
  • Here at home, as a resident of Washington, D.C., I have experienced the frustration of having no representation in a Congress bent on abandoning the poor. I have anticipated the impact of dreadful decisions in my own already impoverished neighborhood, a stone's throw from the Capitol and the White House, and had no official power to stay their hand. I am tired of false, vindictive accusations being leveled against the people I love.

Why, then, do I vote? I vote because too many people can't. I vote because too much power is already concentrated in the hands of unaccountable people. I vote because I am convinced it is worth the effort to try once again to insert moral values into our political process. I vote because I cling to the belief that honest representation is possible; that significant changes toward justice in our national, state, and local affairs can be blocked by a few powerful people; that we can articulate a platform based on the common good, cognizant of what impact various policy proposals have in the lives of the most vulnerable in our midst and around the world.

WHETHER TO VOTE is the first question. How to vote is the next. What and who will guide this decision?

The first answer to this last question is community, a place for honest dialogue-often across differences-that can help us understand the issues and evaluate the various choices. In our individualistic society, important and complex decisions are too often made without sufficient deliberation. Community discernment, though it may lead to different decisions for different people, can lessen our vulnerability to the rhetoric of political discourse and the harangue of biased talk-show hosts.

Beyond communal conversation, our decisions will be guided by another element too often lost to the U.S. public-serious social and political analysis. While our educational system has often built skills for mathematical, scientific, literary, or linguistic analysis, we are largely ignorant of the processes necessary for social analysis. Yet, as people of the gospel, we are called to faithfulness in this regard.

Every proposal, policy, or political platform should be measured by how it touches the human person; whether it enhances or diminishes human life, human dignity, and human rights; and how it advances the common good. -from Political Responsibility, by the U.S. Catholic Conference

We cannot support candidates who would exclude the poor from their rights in our society. We cannot support policies that would further damage the rest of creation. We cannot vote for a platform that perpetuates racism or sexism, that exacerbates the increasing maldistribution of wealth. Before we vote, we must ask fundamental questions about who participates, who holds power, who is the power behind the power, who benefits, who carries the burden. We have to know the issues at stake in our society and look for the proposals that nurture life.

If we believe in social and economic justice; in the fundamental right of all to a dignified life where the personal and the public support and enhance each other; and in the responsibility of the human family to honor the rest of creation, perhaps we can support those candidates who, with all their flaws, will at least move us in that direction.

OUR RELIGIOUS traditions can help us identify the values we seek. For example, the twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity offer guidance to the necessary task of blending personal and social, communal and government, public and private responsibility for shaping the common good. Solidarity is that characteristic which reminds us of our intrinsic interconnection as family to all other human beings and to the rest of creation-and of the responsibility that creates for their care.

Subsidiarity locates decisions and programs, functions of government, as close to the people as possible (local is better), unless the local community cannot or will not fulfill its responsibility to the common good. We are simultaneously unique individuals and members of a community; important members of families variously described and citizens of a large and powerful nation-state; people profoundly concerned about the neighborhoods and the world in which we live. Each of these identities must be brought to bear on the political decisions we make.

Many pathways are open to the Christian community intent on fidelity in the public arena. One of those may lead to the voting booth. If so, discernment in community about candidates and their proposals, careful identification of key issues and analysis of the impact of various proposals on the most marginal communities, and the application of fundamental life values to probe the rhetoric on the campaign trail may serve us well.

MARIE DENNIS is the associate for Latin America in the Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

Image: Voting hand, Reistlin Magere /

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