Flash back to Election Day 1976: a Marquette University freshman from Hudson, Massachusetts waited to vote at a Milwaukee public library. This was the presidential contest between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Exercising one of his rights and responsibilities as a United States citizen for the first time, he took one last glance at the ballot, making absolutely sure he had pulled the lever for the candidate of his choice.
As you might have guessed, that student was me. The right to vote is a hallmark of life in a constitutional democracy, as is the right to run for office. Come the New Year, Boston will have a new Mayor, and Massachusetts will have a new Congressman. In 2014, we will witness campaigns to elect a Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Attorney General.
Article IX of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights points to the sanctity of elections in the Bay State: “All elections ought to be free; and all the inhabitants of this commonwealth, having such qualifications as they shall establish by their frame of government, have an equal right to elect officers, and to be elected, for public employments.” And even the most cursory glance at Article XXXVIII, an amendment dealing with the right to use voting machines, emphasizes our absolute right to keep our voting choices secret.
At the same time, our freedom of expression permits us to shout our support for particular candidates from the rooftops, hold signs near polling places, and publicly debate the merits of this or that candidate on social networks. Consistent with campaign finance laws, we may choose to contribute to campaigns, well aware that our names, occupations, and the amounts of our gifts will be available for anybody to review.
In the best of American traditions and in the most civilized campaigns, losing candidates make concession calls and congratulate their opponents. They may even pledge their support or accept positions helping the candidate they had once worked to defeat. Instinctively they know that a willingness to reach across the aisle for the good of democracy is essential – and sometimes missing.
After what we endured in this month of October, witnessing the shutdown of our federal government and the threat of defaulting on our obligations and harming our nation’s bond rating, we should all keep a few things in mind as we move toward Election Day 2013 and then toward the many campaigns of 2014:
- We are a nation of laws, not of men, so let’s put principles over personalities and partisan pettiness;
- Candidates should treat each other with civility;
- Winners should be congratulated, and those that don’t prevail should throw their support behind them;
- Leadership is having the courage to put the interests of our city, state or nation above our self-interest.
Why bother mentioning any of this? Are we taking the right to vote or to run for office for granted?
Think about this. . . News accounts from around the world in 2013 about elections speak make note of “communal violence,” “fears of turmoil,” and “violence [turning] deadly.”
The very process of participating in an election provides evidence of something positive and uniquely American. In this our democracy, which has served as a beacon for the world, we vote to ensure that our voices are heard.