The two principal threats to responsible citizenship are an uninformed/misinformed electorate and voter suppression.
Every four years, the US exhibits its commitment to the democratic experiment of a representative government. Among federal level politicians, only the Executive Office of the President has a two-term limit; members of the US Senate and House of Representatives may serve multiple consecutive or interrupted terms. The 2010 mid-term elections resulted in a divided Legislature, inspiring filibusters, partisan politics, and incivility in both congressional houses. The 2012 election will confirm four more years with the incumbent Democrat, President Barack Obama, or a new Republican administration lead by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Unsurprisingly, the stakes in the election have been reduced to sound bites on the economy and jobs, family values, and healthcare, social security and taxes. Unfortunately, sound bites fail to educate many voters sufficiently in their choice of leaders to serve the common good.
The Catholic Bishops of the US, like the public, are not immune to sound bites or campaign rhetoric nor silent on matters that support or thwart the teachings of the Church. As part of their magisterial role and in advance of Presidential elections, the USCCB issues a guide for Catholics in voter decision-making. This year’s guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” underlines seven key themes of Catholic Social Teaching. However, the media and the campaigns skip the full integrity of the USCCB election guide as the din conflates Catholic teaching into concern for family values (particularly against marriage equality) and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (against employer insurance plan requirements for prohibited reproductive services). Sadly, this caricature fails the Catholic tradition, distorts the purpose of “Forming Consciences,” and polarizes the Catholic faithful. Sadder too, this caricature is co-opted by partisanship. The contrived divide circumvents responsibility and minimizes the opportunities that candidates would have to consider how the teaching could inform a platform that attends to economic justice for all, a consistent ethic of life, and solidarity.
In another challenge to responsibility, local governments fail to educate the public that every election is an election for officials whose terms of service are up or for referendums and amendments to policy: in a democracy, votes are needed regardless of party affiliation, open political seats, or constitutional changes. Additionally, voter suppression efforts to reduce election day polling effectively frustrate the ideals of representation: workday vs. weekend polling and the reduction of early voting days from 12 to 8 make exercising voter rights difficult for folks working long hours or multiple jobs; initiatives to purge non-citizens from the voting rolls are at best foolhardy and at worst anti-immigrant and racist; and re-districting in minority neighborhoods that includes changed polling locations denies many access to the ballot. The US Department of Justice has determined that these initiatives are discriminatory and therefore illegal.
Despite the Department of Justice determination, voter suppression continues. As many as 33 state legislatures have attempted stringent ID rules that effectively discourage voting by minorities and low-income families to the benefit of Republican candidates. Sadly, such tactics are de rigueur in US politics, they intimidate voters, they ignore the constitutional bases of a representative government, and they damage voter trust.
With only weeks to go before Election Day, the campaigns focus on the undecided who, from my experience as a neighborhood canvasser, promise to follow the televised debates but whose present awareness of the issues and the candidates’ positions seems as indeterminable as their indecision. An uninterested electorate may very well be a third and the most ruinous threat to responsible citizenship. In a land where voting is a right and a responsibility, misinformation and ignorance, voter suppression, and voter indifference confound the hope for a more perfect union where the common good prevails.