CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After a long campaign season, we should examine implications of one simple fact: Aside from presidential races -- and sometimes even then -- most people who call themselves "citizens" do not vote.
This abject failure has been blamed on many things, ranging from the "winner-take-all" feature of the Electoral College, to the notion, held by many, that elections provide us few real choices and are dominated by special interests.
Allow me to blow off steam by repeating what I often tell my students: Most people who fail to vote are unpatriotic, irrational or confused. More than that, the failure to vote is an abdication of moral responsibility and a threat to our mutual self-interest. To the extent that nonvoters begin to outnumber voters at election time, we lose our republic.
Too many people think the decision to vote is merely a personal affair. If there were such a thing as poetic justice, they would be required to explain this to the millions who fought and sometimes died for the right to vote.
The 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote without respect to race, color or previous condition of servitude, came about only because of a bloody civil war. It was opposed because it was an actual guarantee of shared power and therefore a recognition of equal dignity. The subsequent eclipse of the right to vote for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era was successful because white folks, North and South, did not take the amendment seriously and did not choose to think of their fellow citizens as equals.
The massive disenfranchisement of black voters in the South lasting from the 1880s into the 1950s could only be effectively challenged after a hard-fought civil-rights movement, culminating in the bloody Selma march leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- a law passed one year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would have had little political punch until African-Americans could actually vote.
Anybody who thinks voting makes little difference should ask why Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, the leading racial segregationist of the 1960s, suddenly began to apologize and became an integrationist in the 1970s after blacks swarmed to the polls.