If you are reading this column on a printed news page or behind the paywall of the East Oregonian website, I will make the assumption you are an active voter. Those who pay for their news are far more likely to be engaged with other civic duties, not to mention more informed about candidates and issues and motivated by their own role in the electoral process.

I will not spend my time or yours imploring you to register or to turn in your ballot, though I do hope you share that message with your less engaged friends and family. Umatilla County ranked dead last in voter turnout in May at 37.6% and we’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to begin using our full political voice.

I also will not suggest or recommend who or what you vote for this November. This is a great space for those discussions, and I hope you engage openly and vigorously in the coming month. But I believe there’s something even greater at stake.

I’m asking you, as a newspaper reader and citizen, to firmly stand up for the foundational principle of our democracy — a free and fair election, regardless of the outcome.

(A quick note: Some readers enjoy disputing the term “democracy” to define our form of government, favoring “republic” because we rely on elected representatives to pass laws rather than voting directly on each issue. Because this column deals with the democratic ideology of voting, I use the former. If you want to debate the terminology, please find your nearest high school civics teacher.)

The erosion of Americans’ trust in government has been well documented. It’s no wonder, as the two-party system has so tirelessly and effectively worked to demonize the opposition that we actively despise and discredit their members as soon as they take office.

And how long can we chip away at roughly half of our elected officials before we start taking chunks out of the bedrock to try to make them fall?

If we are led to doubt the basic foundational process of an election and the results it leads to, we are on a fast path to national crisis and ultimately critical failure. It is in every American’s best interest that the electoral institution and tradition be treated as a shared middle ground instead of a battleground.

This places heavy importance on accusations of voter suppression or fraud. Institutionalized or personal action that keeps a citizen from registering or voting, or intentionally submitting an illegitimate ballot, cause lasting damage to our faith in the process.

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, we should treat such reports with serious scrutiny. Since the founding of our democracy there have been efforts to disenfranchise and diminish certain citizens’ right to vote. It took three constitutional amendments and nearly 200 years to establish the right for all adults (regardless of race or gender) the right to a ballot (regardless of income). Any effort to tamper with that right should be scrutinized and condemned.

As for fraud, we must demand clear and accurate descriptions of its occurrence and full legal reckoning for its participants. We know it is rare, and that there are checks built into the system to ensure ballots are collected and counted correctly and in good faith. Any attempts to imply widespread malfeasance without evidence should also be viewed critically and harshly.

Our democracy is bigger than the politicians it empowers, but its strength relies on our collective effort. The system devised and revised by our forebearers is now up to us to build upon and defend.

We should all take the opportunity this and every election season to not just proselytize for our chosen candidates, but for the act of voting itself. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but the ability to fill out a ballot and have your voice heard is a core promise of living in a free country.

Without this foundation, there is no democracy left standing.

———

Daniel Wattenburger is the former managing editor of the East Oregonian. He lives in Hermiston with his wife and children and is an account manager for Pac/West Communications. Contact him at danielwattenburger@gmail.com.

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