Now may be a good time to reflect on “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet. It was written at a time when an oppressive power led by a mad king threatened the progress of a community of diverse and promising immigrants — a time when the leaders of the American colonies had the opportunity to turn the reins of power over to we the people.
Let’s not kid ourselves: Our Founding Fathers weren’t perfect. Their definition of that “we the people” omitted whole swaths of the population. But thanks to the efforts of the civil rights leaders we celebrate this month and in many others, every citizen now has the right to vote — the cornerstone of democratic governance.
Paine wrote: “The strength of one man is so unequal to his wants … that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief from another, who in his turn requires the same.” The promise of our representative system is that it allows us to come together to provide for our common good. While society is much different today from that in Paine’s time, and the pace of change is accelerated by the internet and social media, the concept of the public square is no less important. It is through our participation in public discourse that we project our collective voice in favor of certain values and public policies, and we vote for our leaders.
Paine calls for regular elections, but that’s only effective if the electors participate — and we’re not participating.
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In Kansas City within Jackson County, turnout in the last presidential election was 58.57 percent. Turnout was only 32.58 percent in the March 2016 primary won by Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Eric Greitens.
And turnout in the last mayoral election was a measly 13.07 percent. With participation numbers like this, our current government cannot possibly reflect Paine’s vision of representative democracy. It’s not because of alternative facts, Russian hacking or the seemingly omnipresent and dastardly Hillary Clinton or Steve Bannon. It’s because of us.
We the people are not actively participating in the public square. We tweet, Facebook and complain, but we aren’t doing our duty as citizens. We’re not voting.
Some of the blame lies squarely on our shoulders. We’ve given up, don’t care or have determined that our single vote doesn’t count. But there are also structural and systemic problems clearly suppressing voter turnout. Certain wily and cynical politicos are constantly working to make it harder for certain types of citizens to have their voices heard.
They draw legislative districts to make it harder for opponents to win. They enact voter ID laws to solve a fraud “problem” that doesn’t exist. They scream “fake news” when they’re discovered.
So, the question arises: How do we increase participation? The Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners is working to identify the things we can do to provide greater accessibility to the polls for registered voters. We’re working with local organizations to register more eligible voters. We’ve purchased new election equipment that will reduce wait times on Election Day, streamline the absentee process and provide greater security. We will also look at structural issues within current election laws and speak with our state legislators about ideas to modernize the statutes.
But most importantly, we have great people working every day at our offices in Union Station to keep the engine of government running smoothly. Individually, we can each do more by registering to vote, making sure our registrations are current, encouraging our family and friends to do the same, and supporting candidates or campaigns we agree with.
Paine focused on the “present ability of America.” He made a detailed accounting of the American balance sheet and determined the colonies had the resources necessary to break away from England and start anew — a daunting task. But, he also concluded, “It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Casey Martin is a lawyer and the chairman of the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners.