Even before the United States Constitution was ratified in 1789 and the 13 states functioned under the loosely allied Articles of Confederation that very same question arose.
In The Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote that the best scenario shall be “…to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
There is a dark side of the electoral moon due to the omnipresent danger that, “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” America as we know it had not yet formed, but Madison forecast our current climate.
Think about what this means. The political campaign trends we see today reflect practice not unlike those of centuries ago; these are not new. What is new is the direction of our discretion. Voting is a matter of absolute discretion. As Susan B. Anthony wrote, “Suffrage is the pivotal right…” It’s pivotal by its inherent power to choose.
To inform discretion, consider your representative’s role. Shall your representative be a mouthpiece for your own wants and interests – an instrument of your will – or is there something more? When you vote, what exactly are you voting for? What does your vote itself represent?
Irish statesman Edmund Burke defined the delegate’s role to be active, rather than passive in nature, concluding “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Will the representative you choose betray the public trust – will he or she betray your trust? Will the promises be kept? Will real change finally come or will there still be more of the same?
Consider one representative whose distinguished public service career spans decades.
Steven C. LaTourette from Ohio served as Lake County District Attorney for six years, where he successfully prosecuted the Kirtland serial murderer, among other noteworthy courtroom victories. He subsequently served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 18 years. Reflecting upon his tenure after announcing a decision not to run for re-election in 2012, LaTourette shared some guiding principles, saying “I tried to be an honest broker who found solutions rather than problems.” This is the definition of merit: it’s all about the results. He also added, “I am retiring undefeated and unindicted, which is an accomplishment these days.”
It’s ironic that so many incumbent representative seats lie open while new faces run for election. While a moderate Republican, LaTourette didn’t blindly obey party lines. He voted with his conscience and his heart. His career demonstrates what John Quincy Adams meant by declaring, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, always cherish the sweetest principle that your vote is not lost.”
A few years ago, I visited Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where one impassioned National Park Service guide stood before us in the very room where delegates voted on the Declaration of Independence, the seminal document that formally started it all. He told us a tale of dissent and how Delaware’s two present delegates were split, with one favoring independence and one against. The tie-breaking decision depended upon a lifelong public servant named Caesar Rodney, who was sick with asthma and a debilitating cancer that had disfigured his face.
Upon hearing about the stalemate, Rodney hastily traveled by horse for 14 hours from his home near Dover, Delaware, to Philadelphia. Galloping through the blistering summer heat and a thunderstorm, he arrived at the doors of Independence Hall covered in dust. His vote broke the tie among Delaware delegates, thereby moving the Second Continental Congress closer toward deciding the question of independence.
Standing inside of that chamber within Independence Hall remains a potent memory for me, gazing up George Washington’s actual Rising Sun chair where he sat while presiding over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and down at the table where Thomas Jefferson’s walking stick casually rested. The guide asked that we remember his tale when we found a Delaware state quarter, telling us to look on the reverse, where a mounted figure was riding a horse.
This story, more than any other, shows the staying power of one vote. It proves that if Caesar Rodney could make it to the polls, then you can, too.