Saturday, August 6, 2005

Sustaining Democracy

In ancient Athens, the government was run through a system of direct democracy. Members of the Athenian Assembly were chosen by lot for each day the body would meet. This way, all citizens had the opportunity to participate in the political process. Each could voice his own views and debate publicly with his fellow citizens. But citizens of Athens had not only the opportunity to participate, but the duty as well. If a man who was chosen by lot for the assembly did not participate, a police officer would go to the man’s house and paint his toga red, so that everyone would no that this man had chosen to not participate in the Athenian government.

The United States is a far cry from the days of Athens. Today, especially in the youngest group of voters, it is a challenge just to get citizens to vote, no less to voice an opinion. People are disillusioned with government, and do not feel that it can or will do anything for them. So, instead of trying to change the way government operates, they sit idly by and let others make decisions for them.

But there was a time in the not-so-distant past that our government did make monumental changes that changed the lives of its citizens. Elected leaders opened up the franchise to many Americans who had been denied their rights as citizens of this country. Congress gave a voice to the silenced and opened democracy to all citizens of the United States, ending the discriminatory practices that had plagued the country since the Civil War.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. This act set up the mechanisms to enforce the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote to all citizens of the United States, regardless of race. Over the last four decades, Congress has amended and renewed this act several times. The act, according to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, "is considered to be the most effective civil rights statute ever enacted by Congress." Legendary leaders like Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and John Lewis worked for its passage. The Voting Rights Act gave a voice to those who needed to speak the most, and dealt a serious blow to those trying to stop the extension of democracy to all Americans.

The franchise is the birthright of all Americans. The United States is founded in the idea that every citizen has the right to vote and be heard. This idea has developed from the early days of democracy, and is the historical heir of the democracy of Athens and the republic of Rome. To be a citizen means that you have a voice. The way we express our voice is through the ballot. Millions have fought and died for this idea over the years, decades, and centuries. The march of democracy spread all over the world in the 20th century, from the Middle East to Latin America to Eastern Europe. And the right to vote was extended in this country to the heart of the confederacy through the Voting Rights Act to Alabama and Mississippi.

Only when everyone has the right and ability to vote can we get to the point of making sure that everyone exercises that right. The Athenians knew that to sustain the democracy, everyone must participate in it. The red paint was a mark of shame for an Athenian citizen, just as declining to vote when one has the opportunity should be a mark of shame in this country. There is a saying that "If you don't vote, you can't complain." This is what the franchise is all about, giving everyone a voice.

The Voting Rights Act did a lot of good in its first 40 years, but there is a long way to go. Today, as we celebrate the signing of this great act, we must also work for its renewal again. The march for democracy is not over in this country. The fight for equality is not concluded. The right to vote must still be preserved for all Americans. When it returns from its recess, Congress needs to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act in the way that those who worked so hard for its original passage would want, by having democratically elected representatives vote to renew the act.