Want to see a bunch of adults get excited about stickers? Wait until Election Day and watch for lapels proudly proclaiming “I Voted!” They joy is remarkable; after all, Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the others that we have tried.
One of the greatest developments in the American experiment has been the opening of the electoral franchise — the right to vote. You needn’t have a “Y” chromosome or own property to participate in the public administration of your state or nation. That is a good thing; if governments exist only insofar as it maintains the consent of the governed, the legitimacy of the social compact becomes self-reinforcing through periodic, electoral consent.
Yet it is all predicated on confidence at the ballot box. Regulating it requires value judgments. So, which is the worse outcome? Polls open to the widest possible array of people, leaving open the possibility of hijinks, ineligible individuals casting ballots, and fraud? Or a tighter electoral system, potentially turning away citizens entitled to vote, all in the name of electoral integrity?
Like most things, there is not an easy answer. Trying to balance those competing priorities is a delicate dance.
In 2011, the GOP tried to tighten the reins on the system, making numerous changes in Maine. One was ending the ability for individuals to register to vote and then cast a ballot all in one fell swoop. That was overturned through a people’s veto. Other parts of the Republican reform remain; for example, limiting the ability to take out absentee ballots in the few days before the polls officially open.
That change was supported by town clerks throughout the state, who face a significant workload — especially in smaller towns — preparing everything necessary to accept and count votes on any Tuesday upon which an election may fall. Some — including the Bangor Daily News’ editorial board — believe the Legislature struck the wrong balance. In the BDN’s calculation, a more open ballot box is better than one more tightly controlled.
Meanwhile, as we all shovel out our fill pipes and driveways, we watch other internecine warfare commence within the Democratic Party when it comes to civic activities. Left-leaning consultants and interest groups are assailing Maine’s secretary of state for his audacity in proposing that those soliciting signatures for any of the myriad ballot initiatives — paid and volunteer alike — step 50 feet away from a polling place.
Matt Dunlap’s proposal is a response, again, to the concerns expressed by some voters and municipal officials. Running the gauntlet of signature solicitors — Give Shawn Scott a casino! Raise taxes for … whatever we want as the cause du jour! — makes it difficult for individuals to discharge their civic duties.
But regardless of ballot questions and electoral access, democracy only works when the citizenry is engaged and informed. And if you believe Tufts University, civic education has fallen by the wayside in the United States. Humorously, years ago “The Man Show” lampooned this reality; they set up a petition drive at a farmer’s market to “End Women’s Suffrage” and found many willing to sign the petition. After all, “suffrage” isn’t a common word and it sounds like “suffer,” and suffering is bad. Right?
That is part of the reason why many are suggesting reforms to the referendum process. There have been countless accusations of misleading tactics by advocates (whether motivated by passion or profit) in their pursuit of ballot qualification. And, since the nuance inherent in public policy isn’t available in a snap decision to sign a petition (or not), approaching people with witty slogans while they are captive, waiting in a line required to participate in their own governance, may not be the best way to foster civic engagement.
Because an “I Voted!” sticker is more than a mere point of pride. It conveys that the citizens considered the candidates and issues set before them, educated themselves, and made an informed choice. It may not always be true, but it is certainly the goal. Placing obstacles in the way in the form of petitioners — be they well-meaning or well-compensated — can be a disservice, and antithetical to a healthy democracy.