Stephen Gottlieb: The Sacred Right to Vote
I keep hearing that many people are blasé about voting in this election. The great American historian Gordon Wood described liberty in the Revolutionary era as meaning the right to vote, the great right of a free people.
My wife and I worked in Iran in the mid-1960s. We saw the disappointment that Iranians there felt because the Eisenhower Administration, leading what we always called “the free world,” helped overturn the democratically elected leader of Iran, whom our government considered too far to the left, and put the Shah back in power. Twenty-six years after Premier Mossadegh was deposed, the Iranian people staged another coup, overturning the Shah, and just to be sure, they occupied the American embassy – a series of events that continues to drive world politics.
My wife and I traveled across Afghanistan, then ruled by a King and quite backward by comparison then to the Iranians. We were headed for India. At the border we saw large posters of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – leaders who brought both independence and democracy to India. According to the science of the time, it should have been impossible to bring democracy to an illiterate and impoverished people. But they led India to freedom. We had come back to the free world.
Years later we visited South Africa, still celebrating their impossible dream. Mandela had done what so few elected leaders had done around the world. He had stepped down as president. While we were there, the papers proclaimed in three inch letters “Madiba is 85,” using the affectionate honorific term for Nelson Mandela. He and those who worked with him didn’t simply take power, or engineer a coup; they engineered elections. Running a democracy was still exciting South Africa. It was a heady atmosphere.
When we left South Africa, we flew to Kenya. James Gathii, then a colleague at Albany Law and a native Kenyan, met us at the airport. With his wife, Carol, and their two boys, we toured Kenya from the rift valley to the Indian Ocean. In Nairobi they took us to see the site of one of the great demonstrations that helped to bring down Daniel Arap Moi who had ruled Kenya for nearly a quarter century, and shared with us the excitement when they all realized Kenya would have a new lease on democratic life. They have had several rounds of elections since.
Each of those countries will continue to struggle to bring about or to solidify the democratic systems they sought. They know the value of a vote.
We, in the U.S., who proclaim so loudly the virtue of democracy, should know the value of our votes. The vote is the first defense of a free people. The vote drives those we elect to pay attention to the people. It is ultimately the vote which will mean that the great mass of the American people can make sure that government is, in Lincoln’s words, for the people, for the welfare of all of us, and that we don’t fall into the trap of those countries in which governing is the opportunity to add to the wealth of those in power – kleptocracies instead of governments.
Those who vote will be counted; those who do not will not. Voting is our obligation to ourselves, to live up to our own ideals; and voting is our obligation to our parents, our children and our grandchildren. Voting is our way of keeping America democratic. So let’s all surprise the pols; let’s all vote.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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