The people of the Philippines have just taught Americans a very important lesson in democracy. They have shown us the meaning of the right to vote, a right that many of us don't even bother to exercise.
An election in the United States is a relatively easy thing to participate in and to administer. Abuses of the system are few and far between. More than 200 years of trial and error have given us elections in which, except for isolated instances, every registered voter can feel sure that his or her vote will be counted. A voter in the United States can go to the polls secure in the knowledge that, barring some oversight of his own, his name will appear on the precinct roster.
Yet, we have become so complacent about our elections that we do not bother to participate in them. Only about 50 percent of the eligible citizens voted in the 1984 presidential election. We think that our vote won't count among so many, or that it really doesn't matter which candidate wins. We have decided that our system of democracy can work without us.
In the Philippines, citizens arrived at the polls to discover that their names weren't on the registration rosters. Would you like to try to explain to them that their one vote wouldn't make any difference? Election officials risked physical violence and linked arms to form a protective human chain around ballot boxes. They must have felt that the small percentage of votes contained in those boxes was worth protecting.
The dedication of the majority of poll workers in our own country equals that of the ones in the Philippines. During natural disasters, we can see firsthand the same kind of heroics. Many areas of Virginia were covered with flood water on the day of the 1985 gubernatorial election. During the course of that day, election officials were evacuated from polling places that were entirely surrounded by the flood. Others reported bravely to their posts, despite the fact that their own homes and businesses had been destroyed. A registrar rowed a boat to her office to save registration records.
Yet in Northern Virginia, where flood damage was minor, we had a turnout of only about 50 percent of registered voters, with only about 50 percent of the eligible population registered.
In the Philippines, we may never know what percentage of the population cared enough to vote. Yet a look at the photographs shows that the polling places were mobbed. People risked the opposition of soldiers to cast their votes. They fought off those who would keep them out of the lines. Although they probably realized that their votes would be tampered with, they put themselves in dangerous situations for the right to cast them.
Here in the United States we have a system of checks, double-checks, citizen involvement and judicial review to help the election administrators ensure the integrity of elections. Yet how many times do we walk away from a polling place because the lines are too long? How often do we sit at home and refuse to vote because it is raining? Why, when we move, do we carefully change our address with newspapers, creditors and magazines, but lose our voting privilege because we neglect to change our voter registration?
I wish the citizens of the United States could learn this lesson of commitment from the people of the Philippines. I wish we could learn to care about our elections with at least a little of their passion. I wish we could understand, as they do, that one vote does count, providing someone counts it and protects it. I wish we'd quit taking our freedom so much for granted and look at it through the eyes of people who may be experiencing democracy for the first time.