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Graduating to citizenship

By PAUL TASH, Editor, CEO and chairman of the Times
Published May 27, 2007


This is adapted from a speech the Times editor and chairman gave to the graduating class of St. Petersburg High School during its Commemorative Sunday celebration. The ceremony was conducted on May 20 at First Presbyterian Church, and graduation exercises followed the next evening at the school.

As you cross the stage on Stewart Field tomorrow night, you are stepping into new territory, as high school graduates, as young Americans, as citizens. And let me note that as you grasp that diploma, you are also taking on some obligations.

One of those obligations, though not especially difficult, lasts a lifetime. You are now a participant in the greatest exercise in democratic self-government the world has ever known, a system that confers enormous liberties and benefits on its citizens, but in return asks - even requires - that they take part ... as citizens.

You may have some classmates who are making enormous commitments as citizens. Tens of thousands of young Americans are serving in the armed forces, many in the midst of dangerous - often deadly - circumstance.

Some others of you may go on to serve democracy by entering public service. Indeed, our governor of Florida is your fellow alumnus, who walked the halls of St. Petersburg High School before you.

But the basic standard of citizenship requires no such service or sacrifice. Instead, as citizens, we are asked merely to express ourselves at the ballot booth ... we are asked only to vote.

Although there was some uptick in the last election, I must report that the regular exercise of this fundamental civic ritual has been in general decline for the last few decades. In 1968, about two-thirds of eligible Americans voted for president, but by 2000, the figure had dropped to just over half. And voting rates among young Americans have consistently been much lower than for the population as a whole.

That gap strikes me as more than a little odd, because people your age have even more at stake in these elections than people my age, in part because you'll have to live with the consequences for about 30 years longer than I will. Consider briefly just three issues:

Number 1: The War on Terror, or whatever you choose to call it. This war has already lasted longer than World War II. That conflict ended when the Germans and Japanese surrendered, and basically, all the troops who survived the war came home. Now, there are some people who think we should bring our troops home from Iraq. But even if that happened quickly, America likely will be dealing with this menace for a very long time to come, and the greatest sacrifice will be made by people your age, not mine.

Number 2: Global warming. We gather here today in a lovely spot a couple hundred yards from the shoreline and probably 10 feet above sea level. When your children are graduating from high school - and let me assure you, that day will come much more quickly than you think - how much closer will the waters reach?

Number 3: Taxes. If you've already gotten your first paycheck, you know that the government gets a cut of your money. And a growing share of that money goes to pay for Social Security pensions and medical care for old people. What do you think happens to their benefits when more old people vote than young people?

The experts figure that at the current rate of spending, the government account that pays Social Security pensions will be tapped out by 2041. If I'm still around by then, I will be 87. Most of you will be 52, exactly the age I am now, and you'll be trying to figure out how to keep the system going so that your parents don't have to move in with you.

There are lots of excuses you hear from people about why they don't vote, but the one that really frosts me is that "it doesn't really matter." Doesn't matter? I don't know how anybody could say such a thing, especially in Florida.

Just seven years ago, when you were in middle school, George W. Bush was elected president of the United States because he won the election in Florida. Out of nearly 6-million votes cast in this state - 6-million - the margin of victory was 537 votes.

Think about the math. There are roughly 430 members of your graduating class (plus or minus a couple, depending on how those exams turned out last week). If 430 people who voted for George Bush had changed their minds and voted for Al Gore, he would have been president instead.

Now, you may think that George W. Bush is one of the best presidents America has ever had, or you may think he's one of the worst. But I think we can all agree that things would have been very different - for better or worse - if the other guy got elected. And all it would have taken was a change of heart by fewer people than will walk across the stage at Stewart Field tomorrow night.

And if you're still wondering whether voting is important, just watch the people who have been denied that right. In Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, voters turned out in droves for the first free elections, even though terrorists were threatening to blow up the polling places. In South Africa, in the first democratic elections after the end of apartheid, black South Africans lined up hundreds of people deep and waited for hours to cast their ballots.

Within my own lifetime, citizens in some parts of the United States were denied the right to vote because of the color of their skin. Here's how Robert Caro, one of America's leading historians, describes the situation in Barbour County, Alabama, 50 years ago.

"Trying to register to vote took courage for black people in Alabama in 1957. ... Everyone knew about black men who had registered and who shortly thereafter had been told by their employers that they no longer had a job, or about black farmers who, the following spring, went to the bank as usual for their annual 'crop loan, ' - the advance they needed to buy seed for the crop they were planning to plant that year - only to be informed that this year there would be no loan, and who had therefore lost their farms, and had to load their wives and children into their rundown cars and drive away, sometimes with no place to go."

When one black man in Alabama was getting ready to vote, Caro writes, "a car filled with (white) men had stopped in front of his house one night and shot out the porch lights. Cowering inside, he had thought of calling the police, until, as the car drove away, he saw it was a police car."

This is Pinellas County, Florida, not Barbour County, Alabama, and the year is 2007, not 1957. Today, it does not take courage to register to vote. Today, all it takes is your signature.

So, my fellow citizens, who have so much to offer and so much at stake, I offer my sincere welcome as you take your place among people whose opinions really do count. To mark your passage, our local elections supervisor has provided me with brochures and registration applications for new voters. These materials are at the back of the church, and if you haven't already registered to vote, they are yours for the taking.

Consider them a graduation gift, from your country. May God bless you all.