"Voting: A Civic Duty for Latter-day Saints "
SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall 2008)
The November 4, 2008 election in the United States has come and gone, perhaps not as quickly as some might wish. At some point during the eighteen months of intense campaigning, many Americans found themselves feeling apathetic and adversarial toward the political process. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not immune to these types of feelings. Frustration with the declining morals of the country appears to go hand in hand with frustration with elected officials and their seeming inability to address relevant issues of the day. Many may despair that it does not matter whether or not they vote, because their voice is drowned out by the plurality system the United States employs. When faced with these feelings, some Americans choose not to participate in elections at all, as evidenced by the United States’ relatively low voter turnout. Non-voters comprise over one third of all US residents eligible to vote. Granted, the November 2008 general election did break voter turnout percentages for almost the past half century but even this year's high voter turnout leaves questions about the citizens who are eligible to vote, but do not. Some exploration of Church statements on voting might encourage Latter-day Saints, both in the United States and across the world, to take advantage of the opportunity to lend their voice to the political process.
Voting as a Right and Responsibility
Too much emphasis on something as a right without focus on attendant responsibilities gives way to feelings of entitlement over feelings of duty, with the focus being more on self rather than on others and society as a whole. Hence the reason a driver's license is often framed as a privilege rather than a right – to hopefully mitigate the consequences that occur when drivers give little regard to others their actions might affect. Likewise, when voting is viewed solely as a right, without regard to the responsibility it also presents, eligible voters who might be prone to apathy about the political process feel excused when they decide not to vote.
For the most part, general authorities are more likely to discuss duties and responsibilities rather than privileges and rights. Some number of years ago, Gordon B. Hinckley stated in general conference, "I wish with all my heart we would spend less of our time talking about rights and more talking about responsibilities."  During every election season in the United States the First Presidency issues a letter to be read in the sacrament meetings across the country. This year's letter, dated September 22, 2008, states that "as citizens we have the privilege and duty of electing office holders and influencing public policy,"  effectively framing voting as both a right and a responsibility. Elder Ballard recently made a statement supporting the idea that voting is a responsibility. He stated,
While voting is just one small part of making a democracy work and one small way citizens of a nation can be involved in shaping their government, it is clear that the Church's position is that it is a duty for members to actively participate in this process when they can.
In the US, about a third of eligible voters participate in every type of election, a third are periodic voters who may or may not participate in presidential elections, and another third are not registered to vote.  Considering the fact that most democracies in the world have around 80% voter participation, it is worrisome that voter participation in the US has hovered around 50% for the past few presidential elections.  Participation rates are even lower for primaries, local, or non-presidential elections. Such low voter turnout means that government composition ends up not representing "the people" but only those who vote.
US citizens eligible to vote have various reasons why they chose not to participate in elections. Voters might claim their vote will not count, they do not want to condone a 'corrupt' political system by participating in it, they do not like either of the candidates, or they simply do not care about politics or see how it affects them. Addressing reasons individuals do not vote may provide Latter-day Saints who are tempted to abstain from voting a new way to view this process.
First of all, the most important reason Latter-day Saints should vote is because prophets of the Lord have asked them to. In a video at the church's newsroom, Elder Ballard declared "it is very important that good people everywhere are involved in this process. It's dangerous for people to sit back and say "well, let somebody else worry about it."  Beyond that however, some might find it difficult to take an interest in political issues. Following politics daily may not appeal to everyone, but picking up any moderate book, a magazine, a newspaper, or radio station for a few weeks before an election is enough to gain familiarity with the issues and make an informed decision. Those who believe their vote does not count should consider the Washington State race for governor in 2004 where Christine Gregoire won by a mere 133 votes. The results of that particular election could have been entirely different if everyone who was eligible to vote did so. Those who are frustrated with the electoral system (which is flawed in some ways ) should keep in mind that the Lord asks us to do the best with what we have, and this means not giving up on a system that might have its faults. Those who feel contempt and cynicism towards politicians or government in general should remember that "an omniscient God who has seen massive and individual human failure—who knows us perfectly—has never displayed contempt for man; neither should we."  Finally, those who do not feel they can, in good conscience, support either of the two major party candidates, can still make their preference known by voting for a minor party candidate, or at the very least, writing in the name of a man or woman who they feel would be qualified for the position in question.
'Throwing Away' Votes
Those who vote, including Latter-day Saints, may wonder whether voting for a candidate that is not from the two main parties is "throwing away" their vote. If, for example, a voter sincerely backed a Libertarian party candidate, knowing that candidate would have a slim chance of winning a general election would it be better to vote for the "lesser of two evils" out of the two major party candidates?
The following incident from church history helps resolve this question from a Latter-day Saint perspective. In 1844, the prophet Joseph Smith ran for the office of President of the United States. The Saints knew the improbability of Brother Joseph being elected to this high station, yet their conscience told them they would rather vote for a man they knew to be good and honest, than for either of the two candidates at the time, under whose leadership the wrongs committed against the Saints would continue. John Taylor published an article about the presidential election in the Times and Seasons in which he stated that if the Latter-day Saint people would cast their vote for Joseph Smith, they would have the "satisfaction of knowing that we have acted conscientiously and have used our best judgment; and if we have to throw away our votes, we had better do so upon a worthy, rather than upon an unworthy individual." 
The main purpose of voting is that "honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men [be upheld]."  The First Presidency letter on political participation repeats this charge: "Latter-day Saints as citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest." The standard we should use of good, wise, and honest men and women is the Lord's standard. In the modern political arena, however, definitions of good and honest may not be universal. Voters attach varying levels of importance to candidates' experience (whether military, executive or legislative), past moral and ethical transgressions, voting record, party platform, choice of vice president, personal and professional associations, religious affiliation, etc. Latter-day Saints will not always agree on who is the wisest, or the most honest, but members are accountable to their own conscience to vote only for men and women whom they can support and whom they personally believe to be good and honest. If a politically engaged Latter-day Saint believes that one of the smaller party candidates is better suited to political office, this should not be considered "throwing away" a vote. If the traits of goodness and honesty are not self-evident, Latter-day Saints can seek confirmation from the Holy Ghost through prayer that the decision they have made is acceptable to the Lord, remembering that sometimes the Lord answers with silence because He wants His children to use their own judgment.
Another important implication of the mandate to seek out good and honest leaders is that Latter-day Saints should run for elected office themselves. General authorities have occasionally requested members to do exactly this. While Ezra Taft Benson was US Secretary of Agriculture, a plaque on his desk read, "O God, give us men with a mandate higher than the ballot box."  Good, wise, and honest men and women can be found both inside and outside the ranks of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the ability to vote for good, wise, and honest candidates requires that these type of men and women seek elected office.
Political Parties and Neutrality
It is worth mentioning that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints advocates voting based on the candidate, not the political party. The reality is that there are upright men and women of character found in many political parties. John Taylor declared that we should by "every legal means support that man whose election will secure the greatest amount of good to the nation at large."  The aforementioned First Presidency letter states that, "we urge you to register to vote, to study the issues and candidates carefully and prayerfully, and then to vote for and actively support those you believe will most nearly carry out your ideas of good government." Note that Latter-day Saints are asked to support those who will most nearly, not fully, carry out our ideas of good government. These statements speak to the need to not only look at the character of the candidate in question, but to also take in consideration the candidate's underlying political philosophy of good government, and how that philosophy will benefit the majority.
The same September 2008 letter also affirms that "principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties." Contrary to what public opinion might be, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not unofficially or inadvertently back any specific political party. When the Church urges members to vote, is not with a covert implication that they should vote along specific party lines. The Church has repeatedly emphasized its political neutrality for two main reasons: Spreading the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ will forever be its first and only goal and the Church represents a worldwide membership, the majority of whom are not American. There are faithful, temple-recommend carrying Latter-day Saints of various political persuasions, both in the United States, and across the world. Correspondence between general party tendencies, which change from year to year, and well-established Church positions, should not imply that the Church endorses a specific political party.
Some Latter-day Saints may vote strictly along party lines because they assume one party has the corner market on morality or family values. The Church has taken a doctrinal stand on some moral and ethical issues, but rarely does the Church take a stand on specific legislation. Proposition 8 in California is a recent exception. The public issues on which the Church does not oppose or favor any particular legislation include embryonic stem cell research, abortion, and capital punishment. Latter-day Saints should be careful not to imply that one particular viewpoint, party, or platform is endorsed by God. Again, faithful members of the Church worldwide have varying opinions of the role of government in legislating controversial issues. As Hugh B. Brown said, "allow within the bounds of your definition of religious orthodoxy variation of political belief." 
The Church is politically neutral, but members should not be. Latter-day Saints are commanded to be informed on important issues, participate in the political process, and "actively support" worthy candidates. The best way to build a politically active and interested Latter-day Saint community is by starting in the home. Eric Plutzer, a professor of political science at Penn State, argues that the most important factor in whether or not young adults participate in elections is the level of political activity of their family.  Parents should raise their children in a home where news and political information is readily accessible, where meaningful discussions about current events take place, and where parents are seen engaging in their community and fulfilling their civic duty to vote. Joseph F. Smith stated in particular that Family Home Evening should be devoted to "specific instruction on the principles of the Gospel and on the ethical problems of life, as well as the duties and obligations of children to…society and the Nation." 
For Latter-day Saints, political apathy is dangerous. Members cannot abdicate their responsibility to help shape the political future of their native lands. The process of registering to vote, gaining a basic understanding of the candidates and issues and casting a ballot by mail or at the ballot box seems a small price to pay for the ability to lend a voice to society. Heavenly Father wants His children to take an active interest in the betterment of their own lives as well as the lives of their fellow men. It is unlikely that a Zion-like society could be attained without the involvement of every member in its government. Voting also presents an opportunity to exercise the gift of free will, allowing members to "let our own voice shape the voice of the people so that we shall comport ourselves consistently with the divine and tacit compliment God has given us when He gave us agency." 
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “Live Up to Your Inheritance,” Ensign (Nov 1983) 81. [Back to manuscript]
 Newsroom, "First Presidency Issues Letter on Political Participation," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Website, http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/news-releases-stories/first-presidency-issues-letter-on-political-participation (accessed Nov. 2, 2008). [Back to manuscript]
 Newsroom, Public Issues, Political Neutrality. Elder Ballard: Video on Political Participation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Website, http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/public-issues/political-neutrality (accessed Nov. 2, 2008). [Back to manuscript]
 Charles Fergus, "Probing Questions: Why don't people vote?" Research Penn State: The Online Magazine of Scholarship and Creativity, http://www.rps.psu.edu/probing/voting.html (accessed Nov. 2, 2008). [Back to manuscript]
 John Dean, "Why Americans don't vote – and how that might change." CNN Interactive. (November 8, 2000), http://edition.cnn.com/2000/LAW/11/columns/fl.dean.voters.02.11.07 (accessed Nov. 2, 2008) [Back to manuscript]
 "First Presidency Issues Letter on Political Participation," see note 2. [Back to manuscript]
 James B. Allen, “The American Presidency and the Mormons,” Ensign (Oct 1972) 47. [Back to manuscript]
 Neal A. Maxwell, “The Lonely Sentinels of Democracy,” New Era (Jul 1972) 47. [Back to manuscript]
 Brigham Henry Roberts, "History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: An Introduction and Notes," Deseret News: Salt Lake City (1912) 217. Available online at http://books.google.com/books?id=87gUAAAAYAAJ. [Back to manuscript]
 Doctrine and Covenants 98:10. [Back to manuscript]
 Church Educational System, "Ezra Taft Benson," Presidents of the Church Student Manual: Religion 345, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 222. [Back to manuscript]
 Church Educational System, "John Taylor," Presidents of the Church Student Manual: Religion 345, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 48. [Back to manuscript]
 Hugh B. Brown, Commencement address, Brigham Young University, May 31, 1968. [Back to manuscript]
 Fergus, "Probing Questions: Why don't people vote?", see note 4. [Back to manuscript]
 Church Educational System, "Joseph F. Smith," Presidents of the Church Student Manual: Religion 345, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 101. [Back to manuscript]
Full Citation for This Article: Hulet, L. (2008) "Voting: A Civic Duty for Latter-day Saints ," SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHuletVoting.html, accessed [give access date].
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