President’s Column: Law Day 2014: Democracy and Voting
Scott M. McElhaney
Along with Mother’s Day, occasional thunderstorms, and the growing excitement of kids as the end of the school year approaches, the arrival of May brings another Spring tradition—Law Day, which we celebrate at the Belo Mansion each year. This year’s theme—American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters—asks us to reflect on the importance of voting and the ways that we can help all those who are eligible to meaningfully participate in our almost 240-year old experiment in self-government.
Now, Law Day may not have the same pedigree as other upcoming holidays and days of remembrance such as Memorial Day and Independence Day. After all, Law Day is not even an official government holiday. The celebration began in 1958 when President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as Law Day in the United States in order to celebrate the rule of law. In his initial proclamation, President Eisenhower explained Law Day’s importance by saying that “[i]n a very real sense, the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive it must choose the rule of law.” As it is now expressed in the United States Code, Law Day is “a special day of celebration by the people of the United States—(1) in appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States and of their rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law in their relations with each other and with other countries; and (2) for the cultivation of the respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life.”
Anyone with a passing knowledge of post-World War II history will recognize the subtext of what was going on. May 1 was known in many countries as May Day not simply as a recognition of a festival day of Spring, but as a day to remember the struggles of workers in their fight for better wages and working conditions. Indeed, May Day was a major state holiday in the Soviet Union. By establishing May 1 as Law Day, the United States aimed to replace what was perceived by many to be a communist holiday with an American patriotic holiday.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and communism generally, the Cold War roots of Law Day have become less apparent. But the lessons that Law Day seeks to impart remain as vital today as they were when Law Day was established. Law Day should remind us how the rule of law contributes to the freedoms we enjoy and how our participation in the continuing work of our democracy, and thus the administration of the rule of law, is essential to the preservation of our liberty.
Two of the principal ways we participate in the continuing work of our democracy and the rule of law are by serving as jurors when called and by voting. This year’s Law Day theme focuses on the importance of voting. As current American Bar President James R. Silkenat has eloquently put it, “[t]he right to vote is the foundation of our representative democracy. It is the very essence of government by the people. When voters participate in free and fair elections, they reinforce the legitimacy of the rule of law.”
Recently passed laws in Texas and other parts of the country have made issues surrounding voting procedures and requirements lead stories in all sorts of media. Opponents and supporters of those laws will continue to contest them in legislatures and courtrooms. But by asking us to consider how we can help voters meaningfully participate in our democracy, the sponsors of Law Day ask us to consider, separate from those contested measures, how we can encourage those who are eligible to vote to do so and how we can encourage voters to cast their ballots thoughtfully.
By any measure, Texas has work to do in encouraging voters to vote. Although voter turnout has been rising in the country as a whole, the University of Texas’s nonpartisan Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life reported last year in its Texas Civil Health Index that Texans ranked last in a comparison of voter turnout in 2010, the last period measured. Even worse, since 1972, Texas has come in under the national voter turnout average. Our rank on voter registration fares little better, where we came in 42nd in the most recent Civil Health Index survey.
One answer to the naggingly low participation problem that we all should be able to agree upon doubles as an answer to the second goal of Law Day’s focus on voting—how to encourage voters to thoughtfully exercise their right to vote. An answer to how to address both issues is education about the importance of voting and how voters should consider their choices. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt aptly put it, “[d]emocracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
The Dallas Bar Association has a long tradition of sponsoring educational programs designed around the annual Law Day theme. Led by Chair Mandy Childs, Co-Vice-Chair Rob Bogdanowicz and Co-Vice-Chair Kristen Cox, the DBA’s Law Day Committee coordinates competitions for Dallas Independent School District students. This year’s competition invites students to create works expressing their ideas about the importance of voting in art (for elementary school children), essays (for sixth, seventh and eighth graders) and photography (for middle and high school students). The winners are announced at our annual Law Day luncheon, and many of the winners of our contests go on to win and place in statewide contests as well. I encourage you to come to our Law Day Luncheon on Friday, May 2, 2014 at the Belo Mansion. Tickets are available online at www.dallasbar.org or by contacting Mary Ellen Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you cannot make the Law Day Luncheon, there are other ways that you can help educate others about how the rule of law contributes to the freedoms we enjoy and how our participation in our democracy is essential to the preservation of liberty. The DBA recruits lawyers to speak in schools about the rule of law, and this year’s ABA Law Day programming encourages lawyers to lead classes about, for example, how to analyze political advertisements. Education about topics such as these will hopefully foster what Judge Learned Hand called the “spirit of liberty.” In a speech that deserves renewed attention, Judge Hand addressed a group of new citizens and noted that people had always come to America to seek liberty. He then tried to define liberty and explained that the spirit of liberty is “the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weights their interests alongside its own without bias. …”
As citizens we have many opportunities to ensure that the spirit of liberty lives on. Regular and thoughtful voting is surely one of the most significant ways it endures. On this Law Day, we should all ask ourselves to help others understand the importance of voting, and how through voting our democracy, and our laws, are renewed and keep us free.