For the citizen, what is a national election? An election is certainly not a short-answer quiz, which those who vote for winning candidates pass and those who choose losers fail.
It is not just the climax, or anticlimax, of a series of parades, debates, rallies, registration drives, television and billboard advertising duels, pundit analyses, and other external evidences of the campaign process.
At another level, an election occurs in the citizen's own thinking. The citizen weighs the direction, the values, the progress of a people. He decides which candidates best reflect whatever leadership qualities his district, state, or nation needs in the period ahead. An election is a time of reflection, of serious moral as well as political, economic, and social judgment. The citizen leads a democracy. He participates in history, in the course of world affairs, either toward an envisioned global community in harmony, prosperity, and peace or toward continued conflict and disillusion.
A vote is a private decision of great public consequence. Citizens may choose to take part fully in the campaign process. Surely, the process needs improvement. But partisans are needed.
Those who have been close to campaigns know they are emotional roller coasters that can expend enormous amounts of energy. They are also political theater; few places in life are lonelier than the empty post-election stage when the curtain falls and the set is struck. The political directors, producers, and stagehands should be appreciated for the work they do in a democracy - dramatizing this season's version of the political show.
And the cast: It is too easy to find fault and dismiss the candidates as opportunistic or any of the other adjectives from cynicism's abundant well. Again, those who have had the fortune to move as observers in the corridors of public life appreciate the earnestness, the intelligence, the effort and frustration of most candidates and elected officials. Sure, many are flawed. But public life should be progressive for officeholders as well as for the people they serve. The candidates' good qualities should be recognized and affirmed. The presidential candidates alone have each spent decades, shaken tens of thousands of hands, eaten their weight in rubber chicken, to reach Tuesday's evaluation in an up-and-down vote. The human drama of that alone should engage our interest.
Is there not a reverse cynicism, which says that the public gets the leadership it deserves? What would be the effect on candidate and campaign quality of an attentive, informed, fair-minded, supportive electorate? What message does the absence of nearly half the eligible voters from the polls on election day send?
A case can be made that in a healthy democracy, when events seem on course there is less need to vote. Not to vote is itself a choice; not to have to vote is an evidence of political freedom not shared in all lands.
Yet to vote is to participate in a national action of consent as a people. There is really no constructive passive consent of the governed. We must vote. And merely to punch the ballot cards or pull the levers mindlessly, in reflex reaction to party labels or to the vague aura of candidate charisma, is to take part in the election less than fully. We must think.
Let's consider another excuse for dozing through the election: Polls are thieves that rob the public's vote of its meaning. Is that true of your vote, or just the other guy's? If the polls say your candidate would win or lose by a wide margin if the election were held at a certain time, you decide for yourself what influence that information has on your decision. Polls are only a kind of information; they suggest patterns of opinions, which can be stubborn or unstable stuff; they are approximations which shift over time; they are not the election itself.
The public seems superstitiously to fear polls as some kind of dark determiners of outcomes, when such self-fulfilling tendencies have only the power that voters give them. If a poll steals your vote, you have only yourself to blame.
A government is the way a people organize themselves to take care of their collective affairs and to seek protection for their individual rights. An election is the choice of officials to run things for the period ahead. Each election is different. It is unique. There are new faces, new issues, new interests; some familiar faces, time-worn issues, and even a few pressure groups depart. No citizen with eyes open can say it has all been seen before.
We can understand why some voters will decide their vote on the basis of one or two single issues of great importance to them. Others will go with party because, over the long run, they want to support a distinct political tradition. For others the voting decision will reflect a weighing of personal advantage against the larger good.
We believe that in the time remaining before election day the public should take specific time to consider prayerfully, with the best intentions for the best government for all, how to vote. And then do it, with a good heart, and all good cheer.