During election years, people in the media seem to be forever lamenting the fact that millions of Americans who are eligible to vote do not in fact go to the polls. When speculating as to why those people don't vote, the media often assume that there is something wrong with a society in which voter turnout is low, by comparison with the past or by comparison with other countries.
Actually, some of the most strife-torn countries, with seething hatreds between various ethnic or religious groups, have much higher voter turnout than the United States has. Where each group is desperate to seize power from other groups, or to keep others from acquiring power over them, getting high voter turnout is no problem. But it can be a symptom of other serious problems.
Maybe low voter turnout among Americans is a symptom of a lack of fear that the outcome of the next election is going to pose some great danger to one group or another, or lead to some disaster for the country as a whole. This is not a defense of the non-voter, but simply points to the possibility that we may have been looking at the wrong indicators of the health of a society.
In reality, much more is at stake than many Americans suppose. Too many people seem to regard voting as a form of personal expression, rather than as a sobering responsibility to the country as a whole, including future generations.
Those who look at voting in terms of individual expression often regard widespread voter "participation" as a hugely important goal. But those concerned primarily with voting as a means of choosing the best leaders and policies fear that loose election laws allow not only more voter fraud but also more uninformed and apathetic people to drag down the quality of the decisions that will shape our future as a nation.
Can people who can't be bothered to register in advance, or to mark their ballots correctly in the voting booth, be trusted with preserving a nation and a heritage for which many Americans before them have fought and died? Can people whose mental level is so low that they must be accompanied into the voting booth by caretakers be given responsibility for making historic decisions for others when they are not even able to be responsible for themselves?
Far from urging everyone to vote, perhaps the media might better urge those who are going to vote to first make sure that they have heard both sides of the issues at stake, instead of just voting by habit, whim, or according to the image or rhetoric of the candidates.
A case could be made that those who have not informed themselves on the issues have a patriotic duty to stay away from the polls on Election Day, rather than mess with something that is too important to be decided by ignorance or prejudice.
Ideally, each citizen should both become informed about issues and candidates and go to the polls on Election Day. But the real question is what to do in a world that is seldom ideal.
Even informed voters sometimes have trouble understanding that they can only choose among alternatives actually available. Some voters vote -- or don't vote -- according to whether their elected officials have lived up to all their hopes. Seldom can any officials in a democracy do that.
There have been a number of domestic policy issues on which many conservatives, for example, are disappointed with the Bush administration. But if conservative voters stay home, more liberals will be elected.
That can create an enormous problem, not just for the next few years, but for the next generation. The federal judges confirmed by the senators elected this November will be shaping the law for decades to come.
If conservative voters stay home on Election Day, then the Democrats will retain control of the Senate and the only kinds of judges likely to be confirmed will be those who "interpret" the law to mean whatever they want it to mean, regardless of what it says. The fundamental right of the people to make the laws they live under will be further eroded or destroyed by judges.
In short, the stakes are high enough to make it a citizen's duty to become an informed voter -- the only kind of voter that is needed on Election Day.