Philadelphia was once known as the cradle of the liberty, but it’s rapidly becoming democracy’s crypt.
Sadly, as a consistent and committed voter, I am now in the minority. But it’s not because Voter ID or other restrictive measures have killed voter turnout. No, the right to vote in Philadelphia is committing a very public suicide.
In the May democratic primary, where candidates and outside groups spent at least $28 million to influence voters, according to The Next Mayor, voter turnout was barely above 27 percent. In the general election, it was even worse. For several important races, including mayor, city council, and the state Supreme Court, combined voter turnout was just above 25 percent.
Asked about the abysmal numbers, Mayor Michael Nutter told the Philadelphia Daily News, “You can’t complain on one hand about what’s going on, and then you can’t take your butt to the polling place five minutes from your house to do something about whatever condition you are upset about.”
He’s right, of course. So is Mayor-elect and former City Councilman Jim Kenney, who expressed dismay at the fact that people would refrain from voting when so many died to secure that right.
But voter apathy, in my opinion, is tied to ineffective government, so elected officials can’t simply point to non-voters. They must also look at themselves.
Too many Philadelphians have voted in the past, only to see things change for the worse.
They’ve voted, and our schools are in a shambles. They’ve voted, and Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of America’s 10 largest cities. They’ve voted, and our representatives have failed to secure a state budget.
When those results are laid bare for everyone to see, our votes, in the minds of many, are meaningless. That’s why the decision to abstain from voting must not be written off as simple laziness. On the contrary, the decision not to vote is a vote in itself. It is a vote to condemn the system.
It’s ironic, really, because while we wring our hands over the crisis in voter turnout, the system is working just as our founders intended. Their vision, after all, was to reserve the vote as a right to be exercised only by white male property owners. And though centuries of struggle have allowed the rest of us to secure that right, we have settled into a system in which the few still rule over the many.
The gentry still manipulate our political process through money. They donate to candidates in an attempt to sway voters, and they buy their way into office through self-financed campaigns.
The influence of money has fueled the perception of corruption, and in Philadelphia and other cities around the country, registered voters are opting out of a process they believe to be rigged.
Perhaps most heartbreaking in all of this is the fact that young people are especially disillusioned with voting. According to an analysis by Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, just 12 percent of registered voters between 18 and 34 voted in Philadelphia’s mayoral primary.
The reasons, it seems, are many. I’ve had twenty-somethings tell me that voting is less effective than protesting; that the choices are often two sides of the same coin; that the political process has no impact on their lives.
But if we haven’t explained to young people the importance of voting, and we haven’t shown by example the priority of voting, and we haven’t used to our benefit the weapon of voting, blaming young people for following our lead is the height of hypocrisy.
I think it’s time for every Philadelphian to engage in some serious soul searching when it comes to the electoral process.
If we vote, what are we doing to educate others about its importance? If we don’t vote, why are we willing to let the few rule over the many? And if we want change, why aren’t we utilizing our most powerful tool to achieve it?
These are hard questions, but if we don’t answer them honestly, we’ll never again be the cradle of liberty. We’ll instead become democracy’s crypt.
Listen to Solomon Jones Monday – Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 900 AM WURD