To the Editor:
What is our most important right as Americans?
This is a question my wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) asked me while studying to take the exam to become a U.S. citizen. It took me a few moments but my answer tuned out to be correct: The right to vote is the most important of all rights, because it is the power on which all other rights rest. That conversation, and the idea that the right to vote is supreme among all others, stuck with me. Our vote matters. But the threat to our right to vote is everywhere, and it doesn’t always take an easily recognizable form. Let me explain:
To vote is to make a choice between different candidates and their respective ideas. But there must be at least two options and, importantly, the chooser must have the opportunity to learn about and understand the differences between them. Voting, and thus our democracy, requires us to both have choices and be able to understand what those choices are. This principle of choice is what makes the current state of politics in Massachusetts so frustrating. In our commonwealth, the power of the Democratic Party is so pervasive that it has effectively obscured the existence of any other party, most effectively the Republican Party, which I represent in my campaign for the 8th Congressional district seat. By eliminating the appearance of alternative choices, a dominant party can eliminate the power of the vote.
There was a perfect example of this dynamic just last week. I was informed of a “Coffee and Conversation with the Candidates” at a senior center in West Roxbury. As a candidate for the U.S. Congress in that district, I was delighted at the opportunity to discuss all of the many issue that directly affect seniors, a constituency that represents 25% of West Roxbury’s population. A state senator and representative were invited to speak, as was my opponent, West Roxbury’s Democratic US Representative in Congress—I, however, a Republican candidate for the 8th Congressional seat, was not invited.
This event, as I’ve said, was called a “candidate” forum, which leads attendees to believe that the people speaking represent, well, the candidates. Those not speaking, it stands to reason, are not candidates. And anyone else presented in another context as a candidate for the 8th Congressional district must, the implication goes, be indifferent to the issues seniors face, or why wouldn’t they attend?
Hearing only one side of any debate, a listener is bound to be confused, and the facts are bound to be distorted. This “debate” was no different. Seniors at this event wanted to know why Medicare was being cut by $500 billion while $186 million was being spent on health care for those with unknown resident status. They wanted to know why health reform mandates would require all health care providers to be party to abortion and contraception regardless of objections of conscience. They wanted to know why health care costs so much and why the promises made to them during a lifetime of hard work were no longer being kept. Sympathy from the candidates was abundant, but answers were scarce. Without an opposing viewpoint, candidates were not challenged to provide substantive responses. Assertions were left unchallenged, ambiguities left unexplored.
The seniors and the residents of West Roxbury deserve better—much better. As citizens, every power we have begins with the power to choose at the ballot box, and that power begins with our ability to fully understand the issues and the candidates. We face crises in our economy, our immigration policy, our healthcare payment system, and our retirement system. I and many other good candidates for office have fresh ideas that will help to fundamentally transform our nation and get it back on the right track. But many voters will not know that we exist. If we do not demand from our institutions access to and information about all of our candidates, then our entrenched incumbents—effective or worthless, honest or corrupt—will win regardless. Ideas will stagnate, progress will become impossible. With only one choice and one possible outcome, voting will be made irrelevant and our democracy will be compromised or lost. Let this election cycle be the time when we not only “Get out the vote,” but “get out the information,” and let the voters make informed choices.
Joe Selvaggi for Congress
139 A Charles Street #272
Boston MA 02114