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Maintain Our Voting Standards

Michael J. Ring

Over the past two weeks, America has witnessed firsthand the awesome power carried by a single vote. For democracy to prosper, citizens must be active, engaged voters. The nation’s democratic institutions should perpetually consider new ideas and means to engage its citizens in the political life of city, state, and nation, and insure that voters are as informed as possible.

Unfortunately, two proposals in front of the Cambridge City Council to extend voting rights would result in a less knowledgeable electorate and violate the unique bonds between citizen and suffrage. While sponsors of proposals seeking to lower the voting age for municipal elections and to allow non-citizens to vote in some municipal elections have noble goals, their proposals would do more harm than good to the democratic system. Both proposals must be rejected.

The City Council is currently floating the idea of lowering the minimum voting age in municipal elections to 16. While the proposal is admirable for its intent to engage young adults in the political process, it is a problematic and dangerous proposal that must be rejected.

There is great sense in fixing the voting age at 18 -- the age of high school graduation for the majority of American teens. These new graduates have been exposed to American history, civics, and government through their high school careers.

A successful four-year high school program will mold educated citizens with a keen understanding of the political and electoral process. The majority of high school sophomores, at age 16, just don’t have enough knowledge of the system to make an informed vote.

Many 16-year-olds do not have the maturity to be voters. Unfortunately, some high school students will undoubtedly treat voting as a joke. The protests of bitter, whining students over the new Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests demonstrate that many teens are not yet mature enough to participate in the political process. A group of immature, angry teens could wreak havoc in a close school committee election, sweeping out candidates committed to high standards and true reform in favor of candidates who will oppose MCAS and pander to the students’ selfish, myopic vision. Certainly, many 16-year-olds demonstrate the maturity that should be required of a voter, but undoubtedly many of their peers do not.

Councillors argue that engaging teens in the political process before they leave for college will allow them to become knowledgeable about hometown politics and form a voting habit before leaving for college. Perhaps at one time it was difficult for college students to track the happenings in their hometowns, but as more and more newspapers are establishing Internet sites, obtaining news from home is quick and easy. I, for example, can follow the political happenings in my hometown through the Internet sites of several newspapers and stay informed of the actions of the selectmen and Town Meeting. Any young voter away at college can easily follow hometown happenings with a little initiative.

A second idea for expanding the franchise, already approved by the City Council, would allow non-citizens to vote in School Committee elections. This idea is even worse than extending suffrage to teens. Voting rights are inextricably linked to citizenship, and allowing non-citizens to vote sets a dangerous precedent that harms the democratic rights of citizens.

Our nation is a nation of immigrants, and over the centuries newcomers to America have breathed vitality and vigor into the American political system. But immigrants have done so by seeking citizenship. The decision to seek naturalized citizenship obligates a person to learn about American history and government, the very things about which every voter should know before picking up a ballot. Gaining citizenship requires a person to show enthusiasm and zeal for the American political process. It requires a new voter to become informed about the institutions he or she will be affecting.

Allowing non-citizens to vote creates the same problem that allowing 16-year-olds to vote would create. Granting the franchise to non-citizens injects a pool of voters who have no obligation to learn about our political institutions into the electorate. Of course, some prospective non-citizen voters would take the initiative to learn about the workings of Cambridge city government, but without any obligation to do so, many non-citizen voters will enter the voting booth ignorant of the process they are now allowed to affect.

But more importantly, extending voting rights to non-citizens violates the sanctity of voting rights for those who are citizens. The franchise is the most fundamental right of an American citizen. It allows us to shape the governmental institutions to which we as citizens are bound. Non-citizens do not share those sacred ties to our history, culture, and tradition, and should not be allowed to overrule the rights of citizens. Extending the vote to non-citizens cheapens the rights of citizens, especially those immigrants who did choose to dedicate the time, effort, and energy to earn United States citizenship.

The citizenship process in the United States is lengthy and imperfect, and certainly needs reform. But allowing non-citizens to vote because of flaws in the citizenship process is not a solution to the problem. Cambridge Mayor Anthony Galluccio is correct in stating that allowing non-citizen voting “is too great a blow to the citizenship principle,” and that encouraging activists to pursue citizenship reforms is a more fruitful outlet for their energies.

Fortunately, it is very unlikely either proposal will be implemented. Both proposals would require approval of the General Court to become law, and Beacon Hill is not likely to look favorably upon either proposal.

To guarantee the vibrancy of American democracy, we must always be looking for ways to engage all citizens in the voting process. But we also have an obligation to produce voters as informed as possible of the workings of government, and an obligation to protect the special right of citizens to have the final say in democratic institutions. Unfortunately, the two proposals before the City Council to expand voting rights would violate these two principles. For the sake of our democracy, they must not be enacted.