Omdahl: How much democracy do we want?
Omdahl writes, "But democracy has an Achilles heel – many voters cast ballots in ignorance, relying on hearsay, rumor, heritage, misinformation and unfounded prejudices. In their ignorance, they often vote against their own best interests or fail to understand the impact of elections on national policy."
Here we are 250 years after the Founding Fathers declared that “we the people” were creating a government with the consent of the governed, we are still trying to define who “we the people” are.
At first, we the people consisted of white property and asset owners who had a stake in society. After a bit, new forms of wealth occurred and the definition had to be broadened to permit people with different sources of income to vote.
Then in the Andrew Jackson era, the flood gates were opened and every white person over the age of 21 was included in the electorate.
In 1848, the women’s rights convention met at Seneca Falls, New York, and demanded action on a variety of grievances. It was a hastily-called affair, with attendance from the area of around 200 delegates and well-wishers.
After expressing opinions on various issues, the last issue considered was the right of women to vote. Some delegates thought it was too big a bite for the nation to chew and opposed the idea. It survived in the end but it took 150 years of relentless fighting for women to win the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
Women’s suffrage was a persistent issue in the North Dakota 1889 constitutional convention. Before committees were even organized, a guest speaker, Henry Blackwell from Boston, was invited to address the delegates.
He quoted the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are equal and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Then he asked: “Is there anyone here that will doubt that a woman has the same right to secure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a man?” That set the tone for the convention. But a majority of delegates doubted so the women lost.
In 1920, the legislature put the measure on the ballot again and it carried by 135,370 to 60,772.
Around 1900, a group of national civic leaders was proposing that real democracy required universal suffrage and universal voting. It favored increased turnout and requiring people to vote. The North Dakota constitution gave the legislature authority to establish compulsory voting but it was never given serious consideration.
But democracy has an Achilles heel – many voters cast ballots in ignorance, relying on hearsay, rumor, heritage, misinformation and unfounded prejudices. In their ignorance, they often vote against their own best interests or fail to understand the impact of elections on national policy.
Recognizing this weakness, a number of North Dakota newspapers are carrying an educational column on the U. S. Constitution by a learned, objective scholar. But it takes commitment and interest for subscribers to take advantage of learning basics about the Constitution.
So the ignorant stay ignorant, some by choice and some by circumstances. There is now a movement to shrink democracy and backtrack to a time when elites controlled more of the process. So what do we need to do to bring the uninformed voter the information required to make intelligent decisions?
Churchill once said that Democracy was the worst form of government except all others that have been tried. We may need to be looking.
Omdahl is a former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.