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Voting About Issues That Matter | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Voting About Issues That Matter

EDINBURGH -- The Scottish rock group The Proclaimers sang a quarter century ago: "I cannot understand why we let someone else rule our land."

Last week's elections for the Scottish parliament suggest that a good many Scots are struggling with the same concern.

For the first time in history, the Scottish Nationalist Party [SNP], which has campaigned for the better part of a century on an independence platform, is the largest party and its leader, Alex Salmond, is expected to head the new government.

That does not mean that Scotland will in the very near future be taking up a seat at the United Nations.

But it does raise the prospect that, as Salmond says, "Scotland has changed for good and forever."

The change for the good is certain.

By voting in great numbers for a party that proposes independence, the Scots made real the promise of democracy.

It has always been true that democracy is of consequence when it allows citizens to peacefully initiate radical change.

To merely maintain the status quo by voting on a regular basis is not, in and of itself, evil or damaging. Indeed, in a perfect circumstance, it is the appropriate, perhaps even moral, choice.

But in an imperfect circumstance, the questions that arise are always the same: Do the people have the authority to vote for meaningful change? Do they understand their authority? Will they exercise it? And are the voting systems set up to accurately reflect their sentiments?

To my mind, the most meaningful votes that can be cast are those that change one's economic or political circumstance.

If the poor can vote themselves out of poverty, then democracy gets exciting.

The same is true if the residents of a geographical region that maintains a unique social, economic or political identity can vote themselves out of the country that governs them from afar.

In Edinburgh, Glasgow and other Scottish cities in recent days, I have talked with students and seniors, professionals and day laborers, socialists and conservatives, and the remarkable thing about the discussions is that they are all highly engaged with the question of whether their nation should continue as part of the United Kingdom. That does not mean that they all want to exit the empire.

The split in support for the SNP and the main party that supports continued union with Great Britain, Tony Blair's Labour, was very close. The SNP has 47 seats in the new parliament, while Labour will have 46. Smaller parties that stand on both sides of the independence debate control the remainder of the seats in the 129-seat chamber -- holding out the prospect of any of a number of governing coalitions.

The closeness of this particular election result guarantees that any movement toward actual separation from the United Kingdom will be slow.

Yet, the voting has created the prospect of such movement, and that is to be celebrated -- even by those who may not favor independence.

A democracy that provides the space for the consideration even of radical change may not be perfect. But it is real, and vibrant -- in a way that America's cannot be said to be.

Scotland uses a voting system in parliamentary elections that is designed to assure that the results are reflective of citizen sentiments. It is far from perfect; indeed, there were enough ballot-design and absentee-voting problems in the latest election to draw comparisons with the troubled processes of the U.S.

But the system errs toward democracy.

In addition to voting for a local representative in parliament -- much like Americans vote for their member of the U.S. House -- Scots also cast a vote for their preferred party in a regional election. Regional seats are assigned proportionally based on those party votes. Thus, Scotland's parliament is far more reflective of Scottish sentiments than the U.S. Congress. And in that reflection it becomes possible to recognize a yearning for independence.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

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