3-Minute Civics: Defining the duties of an American citizen

Published: 5/22/2022 7:02:10 AM
Modified: 5/22/2022 7:00:16 AM

Deb Fauver is a lawyer and former moderator for the Town of Conway.

As you plan for Memorial Day weekend, think for a bit about the 1.2 million Americans who have died in wartime for the dream that is American democracy. Think also about the millions more who went to war and came home alive, but with ongoing trauma. (See www.va.gov for statistics.)

With those men and women in mind, think about how you would define the duties of an American citizen. The Constitution lists the rights of citizens but is curiously quiet on what we owe our country.

For me, it boils down to three basic ongoing duties — be informed, vote, pay taxes —and one intangible: do your part. Jury duty and selective service registration are two additional duties (they will be the subjects of separate columns.)

As moderator, there were dozens of times when a voter would walk up to me with a partially completed ballot (often just the presidential race) and ask, “Is it ok if I leave the rest of this blank?” The answer is, yes, the items you vote on will count and the rest will be tallied as blanks.

I’m glad those people chose to vote at all, but I always wondered how they knew enough to vote on that race if they didn’t have a clue about all the others.

As citizens, we ought to be seeking out news relating to our ballots, local, state and federal. If your guilty pleasure is following the Johnny Depp trial and other celebrity doings, fine. But use that as a reward, after you have done the real work of understanding the issues that will be on your next ballot.

Try asking your friends and relatives where they get their news now. What local and national sources do they trust? Seek out friends and relatives in other parts of the country and have conversations with them about what’s going on in their part of the country.

The question of “what is happening?” is going to be less of a hot-button topic than “who are you voting for?” Start with the easy conversation.

We have a mid-term election coming up this fall. Every state will be electing, or re-electing, representatives and senators for the U.S. Congress, as well as state legislators. Whether the results favor Democrats or Republicans will have consequences that affect all of us. Yet the typical mid-term voter turnout is about 40 percent.

At the 2018 mid-term election, turnout across the nation was 49 percent, which was a record, and cause for much comment. But really, how impressive is it that less than half the voting population showed up to vote?

Local election turnout is often worse. In my town of Conway, we have the SB2 form of town meeting. We hold deliberative sessions in March to discuss the town and school budgets, and then a month later, we hold one election for both warrants. The elections include races for the select board, school board, and other local offices, and a combined total budget of more than $60 million. Voter turnout is routinely less than 20 percent.

As the elections near, sample ballots are posted on most town websites and on the NH Secretary of State website for state elections. The issues on those ballots are covered by various media outlets, both by reporters and also by letter writers.

Often a letter writer takes a controversial position. Talk about those positions with your friends and relatives. Why wait for another civil war or revolution to get involved in America?

My town is one of the shopping capitals of the state. In November, we have a ‘bring a friend shopping’ weekend. This is a lead-up to Black Friday. At both events, shoppers show up in droves. Having done their research, they know exactly where the deals are.

They have arranged for time off from work, sitters for their children or elderly parents, friends to attend the event with them, and, best of all, they often sport matching shirts or hats. I suspect they are even having fun.

Why can’t voters be as enthusiastic about election day as shoppers are about Black Friday?

As for paying taxes, we all know that the government can’t do much without funds. Look closely the next time a third-world country shows up on one of your screens. Check out those dirt roads. And surely you have heard that lots of places in the world don’t even have electricity 24/7.

If you disagree with the current tax structure or the level of services our government is providing, remember that our elected representatives make those laws. We vote them in, we can contact them while they are in office, and we can vote them out. Meanwhile, we have to pay the taxes.

The tougher question for most of us is how much do I need to do to feel as though I have “done my part?” Google tells me this phrase came from a 1997 movie called Starship Troopers. I am here to tell you that people used that phrase long before that movie.

Back in the 1980s, I was walking through a lovely English village with stone sidewalks. A lone woman was weeding a section of the sidewalk in front of her house. I commented on her good work. She looked down the long path of weedy stones and said, “It would be so much easier if everyone would do their part.”

An overwhelming number of problems show up like weeds in the sprawling garden that is America. It is unreasonable to assume that our government will address each of those problems.

Look around and find just one, then find a group that is already working on it and get involved. Think about how much time per year, per month, or per season you can give to America.

Maybe it’s a board or committee, maybe it’s a local nonprofit. It really doesn’t matter where you start. You might not like your first volunteer gig, but chances are you will learn some things and meet some people and get a better idea about where you might best spend your citizenship time in the following year.

As we remember those who have made a significant sacrifice of their physical and mental health, or even their lives, it seems to me that we should all spend a little more time thinking about what it means to do our part for America. Here’s wishing you a thoughtful Memorial Day weekend.

3-Minute Civics is a column that explores and examines concepts to help readers understand and participate in state and national political conversation. It runs every other week in the Sunday Forum. The authors of this column are not members of the Monitor’s staff. 

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