Consider as well the long and difficult struggle for the right of women to vote, beginning with a Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 rejecting the prevailing assumption that women had no legal existence outside of marriage. The struggle culminated in 1920, after the scandalous treatment of suffragettes, who were jailed for daring to demand the right to vote during wartime. The second-class citizenship into which women had been relegated could only begin to be seriously challenged when women, and not just men, determined who could write and implement laws that often treated them as if they were the chattel of their husbands.
Passage of the 26th Amendment, extending the right to 18-year-olds, had to be introduced into Congress 11 times by West Virginia's Jennings Randolph before it was finally adopted. Randolph began his effort in 1942, when young draftees in World War II were required to fight and die without having the right to vote. Only in 1971, amid the vast unpopularity of the Vietnam conflict, was it possible to remedy this absurdity.
The fight to extend and protect the right to vote has occurred throughout our history, and continues today with sustained opposition to efforts to prevent some voters from exercising their rights through a requirement for a photo ID and other inconveniences that target college students, Latinos and some senior citizens.
In political science parlance, voting presents us with a "collective action" problem. Knowing that a single vote may not be noticed in a democracy containing multitudes, many citizens are tempted to avoid exercising their civic duty, knowing that no one will complain. They become "free riders" dependent upon others who are more willing to act as responsible citizens. When as much as half of the population become free riders, democracy becomes much less representative and loses its punch. Indeed, if carried far enough, it ceases to exist, as oligarchies take over, deriving their power from a false claim to democratic legitimacy.
Voting is one of our most vital obligations as citizens. When we vote we should at least see it as comparable to paying our taxes, when through our actions we acknowledge that we have responsibilities dependent upon the contributions that binds us together. When we don't pay the taxes that we are legally required to pay, we call it cheating. Any successful republic depends upon large-scale voluntary cooperation and coordination, or it dies.
Democracy is not just about what we do in our families or on the job -- it is about the solidarity that holds an entire nation together. This is why everyone stands when we say the pledge of allegiance or sing the national anthem. Voting is, among other things, a public ritual, whereby citizens demonstrate their mutual dignity through shared self-governance. Anyone who has the capacity to participate in such a ritual, and chooses not to, should be ashamed of themselves.
Voting serves our rational self-interest, and we need to pursue this public ritual even when it is uncomfortable and difficult. It is telling that more people have driver licenses than voter registration in West Virginia, even though the former is obviously much more difficult to obtain. As citizens, we have not only an opportunity to shape our government and what it does. We also have an obligation to stand up and perform our patriotic duty.
Beller, a West Virginia State University professor, is a Gazette contributing columnist.