What a disgrace that we should even invoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. let alone give ourselves a vacation day in his name on the heels of our last election cycle performance, the most anemic in state history. By sitting at home and ceding our democratic franchise to shadowy big money political action committees (PACs) and machine politics we repudiate the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the work of one of America’s greatest heroes.
In the immediate aftermath of Election Day 2015, Monmouth University Political Scientist/Pollster Patrick Murray determined that just 20.8 percent of registered voters in the state went to the polls, bulldozing the previous low turnout record of 24.5 percent set in 2013 when Cory Booker grabbed a U.S. Senate seat in a special election. That was the same year, remember, that Gov. Chris Christie picked an October date for the senate election – at considerable taxpayer expense – to ensure that Booker didn’t surface on a slate opposite the Republican governor’s own and inhibit Christie’s ability to win reelection.
King and many others, for that matter, died for that right to vote. U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta still bears the wounds of the Civil Rights war, the result of a brutal beating he sustained from the clubs of cops on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. “John Lewis, you’re my hero,” President Barack Obama told the elder statesman on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives last week after Obama delivered his State of the Union Address.
These heroes went before us and stand in our midst and we extol the virtues of Dr. King, and yet still we cynically shrug off voting as if it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter only when we conclude that it doesn’t matter, and when our indolent civic behavior becomes predictable. For our collective indifference anticipated in those low percentage turnout figures election after election creates a pattern that machine politicians size up in order to produce their own mathematical result to northward of the bottomed-out performance of everyone else.
Now we can already hear the howls of irritation produced by this piece, of those who note that gerrymandering all but guarantees the general election victories of those parties dominant in all but a handful of New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts. Who would dare dutifully go to the polls to vote for a Republican, for example, in LD28, except as an exercise in supreme futility? What daftness would drive a Democrat to go punch in a vote for a Dem in, say, LD24?
But we also know that our enormous lack of engagement produces the stagnation necessary to produce corruption.
We know that this condition of corruption in which we live also accounts now for those sudden and more and more common flashes of voter anger and outrage, and candidates who expand their power through anger and projected rage.
So the result is an atmosphere of more anger and more Youtube bumps and rabid and vapid twitter followers, and less that fine, magnificently honed flame of righteousness made sharper and more precise and more powerful finally by intellect, self-sacrifice and profound knowledge of the law that was the province of Dr. King.
With his example before us annually on what should be a great day of celebration, the fault, as Shakespeare wrote, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings, and as long as we shirk that precious right to vote, we honor a name on MLK Day but not truly the man, who no doubt would be deeply saddened and pained to find the work that he died for scorned, and American democracy handed over to jailers and opportunists without so much as a murmur.