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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Just Desserts

People have a right not to vote, but then they get the government they deserve

The Columbian
Published: November 16, 2016, 6:00am

It has been said — and often repeated — that in a democracy, the people have the government they deserve.

For the record, those words were written by Joseph de Maistre, a French-speaking philosopher who lived from 1753 to 1821 and actually wrote, “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle m?rite.” You know, because he spoke French. But for the past three centuries or so, the quote or some variation of it has been attributed to everybody from Alexis de Tocqueville to Thomas Jefferson to numerous newspaper editorial writers. That is because the sentiment is universally applicable and universally useful, particularly when deconstructing elections.

Which brings us to the pertinent application of those words as Americans decipher last week’s presidential election. According to the U.S. Elections Project, which is run by Michael P. McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, about 43 percent of eligible voters chose to not fill out a ballot in last week’s election.

The project estimates that there are about 251 million voting-age people in the United States. Some of them are not eligible to vote, namely noncitizens or those who are in prison or have prior felony convictions that in some states render them ineligible to cast a ballot. That leaves about 232 million people who are eligible to register and to vote, and the latest estimates are that about 132 million of those people bothered to take part last week.

Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Hillary Clinton did, indeed, win the popular vote, despite frequent Internet assertions to the contrary. The intentional spreading of misinformation that Donald Trump received more votes has taken on a Web life of its own and is disappointing. If you can’t believe what you read on the Internet, what can you believe? Sheesh!

But the popular vote, of course, is not how we choose a president in the United States. The Electoral College provided a clear victory for Trump, and he is preparing to be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2017. No amount of protests from those who support Clinton — or those who are simply anti-Trump — can change that.

In Washington state, about 63 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Roughly 5.1 million people are eligible to register, and the Elections Project estimates that 3.2 million voted. Among those embracing an anti-Trump stance after the fact, it is pertinent to question how many bothered to vote and to suggest that if you did not cast a ballot, you have no right to complain.

Of course, choosing not to register or to not vote is just as inviolate a right as is the ability to vote. But the reason that so much attention is placed upon voter turnout is the fact that for centuries not everybody in this country even had the right to cast a ballot. Women, for example, were not granted universal suffrage in the United States until 1920, and many states still engage in voter suppression tactics that typically target minorities. The struggle that went into securing suffrage for all American citizens generates attention toward voter turnout rates to this day.

With Washington enjoying the benefits of vote-by-mail, it is disheartening to witness the biennial stories about long voting lines in other parts of the country. For this nation to live up to its ideals, all efforts must be made to give all eligible voters the ability to exercise their right.

For many people, that means not voting. But the problem with not voting is that, like we said, you wind up with the government you deserve.