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Lloyd Omdahl: Vigilance may be too high a price

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" and "those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

Those who tasted the bitterness of the Revolutionary War and the challenges of saving a democratic republic said it well. But it is the words and not the speakers that warn us of the vulnerability of democracy.

The idea of a democracy is based on the assumption that people have the wisdom and judgment to run a country. In the era of the milk pail and one-lay plows, we could stumble along without falling. Times have changed and the ability of masses to make policy decisions has become questionable.

The citizenry is no longer sufficiently informed to know that the Iran deal was bad, China was cheating on trade or that Russia was eating our electoral lunch. Statistics prove that the uninformed had a lot to do with the election of President Trump.

Polls attest to voter ignorance: Recent polls tell us that only 38 percent knows who controls the houses of Congress or that the national government has three branches. The average person at the polls knows less about American government than the new immigrant who just finished the citizenship test.

But the problem of uninformed voting will not be solved by learning facts or knowing that the national government has three branches. If voters want to judge candidates on the issues, then they need to understand the context of those issues.

Personal knowledge is the only defense upon which a voter can rely in the modern campaigns of blatant lies, partial lies and unclassified lies. It is no longer possible to get truth from social media, the political parties and the partisan media.

Time for vigilance and a little fatigue: "Eternal vigilance" and "fatigue of support" mean we now must stand on our own feet and invest the time and effort to understand events.

Many political observers think that a big voter turnout is a victory for democracy. But we need to remember that "if a million people say a stupid thing, it is still a stupid thing."

It is time to think of our duties as electors as officeholders with civic responsibilities. Of course, many electors would be impeached for incompetence, but we need to try a new paradigm for citizenship.

Voter ignorance has not gone unnoticed. Twenty-four centuries ago, Plato argued that voters didn't know what they were doing so democracy should be junked in favor of a ruling elite. In a more sophisticated way, we have been doing the same thing by using stricter ID laws — let the elite rule.

Seeking cures for ignorant voting: Starting with Connecticut in 1850, literacy tests were used not to upgrade the qualifications of voters but to keep the Irish and, later, African-Americans from voting.

In 1898, North Dakota voters authorized the Legislature to provide for a literacy test, but it was never implemented because, according to bartender Hergruff O'Bannion, a solid majority of Germans and Norwegians always controlled the Legislature.

A few sessions ago, the Legislature sent word to the school teachers to teach some government stuff in addition to the other 25 mandates issued in recent decades. So much for voter ignorance.

The Legislature noticed that our voters were overloaded in a state with the most state officials all appearing in one election so it divided the state officials into two elections, thereby reducing the amount of vigilance necessary.

Until 1964, every elector would get a "publicity pamphlet" that set forth the measures and offered a limit of one page to state candidates. Unfortunately, economy was more important than democracy so it was trashed. It should be revived.

It seems that the state lottery should be used to solve this problem.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and professor at UND. His work appears weekly in the Herald.

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