Ben Franklin had misgivings about U.S.A.
Ben Franklin was one delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention who was happy when the four months of secret meetings ended and he was free to walk the streets of Philadelphia. Only two-thirds of the delegates signed the founding document while a good many went home unhappy.
So when an inquisitive citizen asked Ben what the convention created, he replied, with skepticism “a republic if you can keep it.” After all, this was a new experiment tottering beyond the edge of proven principles of governance.
It was weakly supported by the delegates and the states that would have to ratify it. In just about every state, the Constitution was ratified only after a hard fight and a hair-splitting vote.
So Ben inserted a big “IF” in the future. Nevertheless, we have survived for 240 years under the shadow of “IF” by fighting another war with England, wrecking the country with a bloody civil war, numerous depressions, several skirmishes, two world wars, and several mistakes since. If Ben were here today, looking at polarizing politics, he would still say “IF”.
As the democratic characteristics of the nation have been altered since our founding, the greatest threat that has evolved is an electorate that is not prepared to keep the republic. By its own choice, the electorate has chosen to remain ignorant and lazy. We have lost ground in the quality and quantity.
Civic leaders mourn the quality of voting they see at every level of government. At one time, North Dakota had a constitutional provision permitting the legislature to require a literacy test for voters. The legislature didn’t touch it.
Around 1,900 good government organizations advocated tests to upgrade the quality of the voters. While tests may have had some positive effects, knowing the name of the state capital does nothing to decide much about our sabre rattling in Iran, or knowing the number of stars in the flag doesn’t help decide about earth warming.
Before the electorate will get serious about saving the republic, they will need to recognize their stake in the system and in each election. To a great degree they don’t have a clue. Few facts and all hearsay.
They don’t connect the election with their daily lives and therefore have no interest in the outcome. They represent the 224,000 North Dakotans who didn’t vote in the last presidential election. Imagine: 224,000 North Dakotans who dissed the republic.
Who were the 224,000 missing North Dakotans?
Our counties have bent over backward to encourage everyone to join the electorate. This is a strange statement when we see the legislature doing its best to pass laws to discourage voters, mostly Democrats. Such behavior by a single person would be unChristian. However, getting 130 legislators to vote together dissipates the sin and the guilt.
There seems to be more Christians in county government because many of them have open absentee voting, early voting, and other convenient methods for casting ballots. In a recent presidential election, 37 percent of the North Dakota voters cast their ballots early. The legislature will take credit although it only passed authorizing legislation but left the counties to do the work.
Researchers have found that education is the greatest single influence on voting behavior. The more education means a bigger horizon of interest, hopefully extending to the nation and the world. So how do we get those in the lower ranks of education and income to the polls to cast an intelligent vote?
Can the republic be saved in a world as fast-moving and complicated with the present electorate? Only “IF”.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.