BY DAVID PERRYMAN
Few people remember that when Abraham Lincoln climbed the steps to the platform to deliver his Gettysburg address, he was ill. His illness was not simply the stress of a wartime president. Lincoln was actually weak and lightheaded with an oncoming case of smallpox on Nov. 19, 1863 as he visited the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA.
Perhaps the President’s weakened condition contributed to the brevity of his speech. Perhaps he said all that he needed to say in the address that lasted just over two minutes.
While at the time, many may have been unimpressed by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, over time its ending – Government of the People, by the People, for the People – has come to symbolize the definition of democracy itself.
For this reason, the trend away from voter participation in the United States, and particularly in Oklahoma, is alarming.
When citizens fail to engage in the process of knowing the issues and casting educated ballots in elections at any level, the government is no longer Of the People. The abdication of this duty allows special interest groups on the right or on the left to control the outcome of the electoral process and the government is no longer By the People.
Oklahoma’s voter turnout rate has been consistently under the national average. According to the 2012 Oklahoma Civic Health Index, only 7.2% of eligible voters younger than 30 vote in local elections; less than 5% have any contact with elected officials and fewer than one in five discuss politics.
Fewer than one in three Oklahomans between 30 and 50 discuss politics, less than 9% have contact with elected officials and only 17.3% vote in local elections.
However, the lack of engagement does not begin there. In 2012, 62.8% of the Oklahoma State House of Representative seats did not have a chance to be competitive because of the lack of an opponent.
It is essential that the cause of low rates of political engagement and participation be identified and addressed. This week, I am sponsoring a Legislative Interim Study bringing together four national and statewide non-partisan experts who will present information to the Legislature concerning the current situation and possible solutions.
A year or so ago when legislation concerning the elimination of the Electoral College came before the Legislature, I overheard a lawmaker say, “If this passes and we elect a president based purely upon who gets the most votes, our party will never elect another president.”
We must overcome the temptation to judge whether voter participation and election reform benefits Democrats or Republicans. If the test for whether we want more people to vote is whether it will help or hurt our own political party, then we have already failed.
A government must reflect the needs, desires and concerns of an educated electorate and that requires engagement at all levels. Otherwise, this government that we claim to love so dearly will no longer be For the People.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, serves District 56 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives