Penny Smith

Penny Smith

If you haven’t participated in early voting, it closes on Feb. 29. Election day proper is Tuesday, March 3. Be responsible. Voice your opinions with your votes.

North Carolina is part of Super Tuesday this election cycle. We moved up in an effort to become more relevant. The good news: our state’s mass media outlets will probably make more money on political advertisements than in the past.

But, if recent history is any guide, there will be fewer of us involved in the voting process than those who, on election day, stay home, go to work, meet friends for a brew or hike in a national park. We have become, according to some pundits, a discouraged, polarized nation. We lack confidence not simply in politicians, but also in political institutions. Our voter participation rates are dismal.

So, perhaps, there are reasons to reconsider our standing as a preeminent democratic republic. We can claim pride in being the first modern era country to adopt such a system, but our “sell by” date may have expired. Maybe we’ve gotten complacent, thinking civic auto-pilot would save us.

The Democracy Index, a comparison of 167 countries on 60 indices of democracy, dropped the United States into its “flawed” category in 2016 and we have remained there. Freedom House’s political/civil rights index ranks 49 countries above ours. Those “evil socialist republics” that progressive politicians cite as examples of nations sometimes working better than ours, at least in the political sphere (countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway), are at the top of such lists. No, that doesn’t mean they have more billionaires, bigger militaries or greater economies. It simply means that their political institutions and habits are more robust and healthier than ours. They work for more of their people more of the time.

Yet I’m not sure we live so much in a time of decline as we live in a time of rapid change. While other nations have caught up with and eclipsed ours in voter enthusiasm, civic engagement and elimination of income inequalities, we have had to contend with, and sometimes contribute to, a stubborn unwillingness to recognize that our government was created at a particular point in time and time marched on.

I remember running into the term “vestigial organs” in a seventh-grade science class. They are parts of our body that are still hanging around, but whose purpose has disappeared. It’s like an appendix, which doesn’t help us much, but can kill us if it ruptures. Our body politic contains, because our Constitution contained and still includes, political examples of vestigial organs. The Electoral College overwhelmingly advantages small, rural states, ensuring their votes count more than citizens in New York or North Carolina. The same is true of the Senate, which also, because of its arcane rules, requires a super-majority to get almost any business done. There’s a reason it’s become the house where bills go to die. Residents of Washington D.C. live in a No Representation Zone, unable to elect members of Congress because D.C. is not a state. Like the despicable determination that slaves constituted 3/5 of a person, there are simply parts of our Constitution that aren’t suited to a true democratic republic.

To our credit, we have dropped some vestigial organs. The amendment process made former slaves full citizens. It led to the direct election of Senators. It granted women the right to vote. But there are still others lurking around. If we want to survive as a free country, we’d better start confronting them. Vote!

Penny Smith lives in Dillsboro.