My Turn: Empowering more people to vote makes us stronger

For the Monitor
Published: 3/23/2017 12:10:12 AM

According to a recent report from Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project, New Hampshire had the third-highest voter turnout for the 2016 general election in November. This is a sign of an engaged, active citizenry that values and respects the most essential democratic right: Choosing our government.

It is also the sign of a strong society – our security depends on our fidelity to the democratic principles upon which our nation was founded. By this I mean that democracies depend on people believing that they can actively shape their government.

Voter suppression corrupts democracies and fosters divisions among people. Why else would Russia work so hard to interfere with our election but to weaken us? It is for this reason that current attacks on our voting rights, such as Senate Bill 3, are not just threats to our civic society but threats to our national security.

It is clear that our democracy is under attack from Russia. Our intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia intervened in the 2016 election and it seems Russia is attempting to do it again with our European allies. Russia wants Americans and the world to doubt the validity of our elections, to question the merits of our free press, and most significantly, Russia wants us to turn against each other.

This is part of a deliberate strategy by Russia to expand its influence and gain power – authoritarians benefit when people doubt democracy.

Actions that may suppress voting, such as SB 3, feed into Russia’s strategy by causing American citizens to doubt whether they can participate in our democracy. The fundamental and dangerous flaw in SB 3 is that it assumes that we cannot trust one another to treat voting as a sacred right and responsibility.

We take voting seriously in New Hampshire – one need only walk into any polling station on election day to see the diligence and solemnity with which our citizens approach the voting process.

If we needed further proof of New Hampshire’s commitment to our democratic values and institutions, there is a bill winding its way through the Legislature right now that will require a course in civics for high school graduation. This bill signifies the importance we place on citizens being able to understand and engage in our government. But civics is not so much learned in a classroom as it is lived through participating in our democracy.

So how do we defeat Russia’s attempts to weaken and divide us? We beat back this attack by affirming our faith in the democratic process. New Hampshire is where the country, and frankly, the world looks to see democracy in practice. Our town halls, our first-in-the-nation primary and our deeply engaged citizens model the democratic process for all to see. As a result, what we do here in New Hampshire will have consequences far beyond our state.

We must also confront the magnitude of our actions with a clear acknowledgement that the divisiveness infecting our country makes us vulnerable, it weakens us. This is why Russia sought to undermine our election and why it is attempting to exploit these divisions now.

But Russia alone did not make us this divided, and we did not get this way overnight. We created an opening for Russia, and set the conditions for widespread cynicism by incrementally chipping away at the pillars of our democracy.

Over a number of years we – and I mean all of us – have made many small decisions and passed many bills, which, like SB 3, in isolation did not seem to have calamitous consequences, but whose cumulative impact has been to erode our faith in the democratic process and undermine our trust in one another.

The threads that bound us together have been slowly pulled apart by bills just like SB 3.

This must stop. We must strengthen these ties and re-build these bonds. We must not only reject SB 3 and all attacks on our voting rights, we must fight to increase participation in our democracy. We can roll back Russian aggression and restore our national security by demonstrating that Americans can still speak with one voice in defense of our democracy.

For almost 250 years, small bands of citizens have rallied the country to challenge and overcome every threat to our democracy, every barrier to the right to vote. Let us lead such a movement again.

(Dan Vallone is a West Point graduate who served six years on active duty as an infantry officer. He lives in Concord.)

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