Remarks of Representative John F. Kennedy at a Miami Junior Chamber of Commerce Meeting, Miami, Florida, October 18, 1949

The Junior Chamber of Commerce of Miami has had a most distinguished record of accomplishment over the past ___ years, since its inception. It has labored hard for the advancement, not of any particular interest, but for the welfare of the community at large. Certainly its campaign to “get out the vote” in the coming municipal election is most important, for self government cannot survive unless it is vigorously supported by all the people.

This is especially true in 1949, a year of decision, when the future hangs in the balance.

We are faced on this pleasant October evening with a world torn by devastation and struggle. We cling precariously to a cold peace, while all about can be heard the muffled drums of war. The battle is on all fronts. Even words like “freedom and democracy” have been captured and are enslaved by the enemy.

We have been attempting to keep Western Europe free by a series of actions based on the belief that Russian expansion can be contained. The Truman Doctrine as it applied to Greece and Turkey; the Marshall Plan; the Atlantic Pact; The Arms Aid Act, have all been part of the grand design to consolidate the sixteen Western European nations into a buffer against the Russian advance.

While we have held our own in Europe by these desperate measures, our policy in the Far East has reaped the whirlwind. So concerned were our diplomats and their advisers with the imperfections of the Democratic system in China after twenty years of war, and the tales of corruption in high places, that they lost sight of our tremendous stake in a non-communist China. They forgot that the independence of China and the stability of the national government were the fundamental objects of our far Eastern policy.

The communist assault on the rest of Asia has already begun. Even here in America we are face to face with the possible domestic disaster. A cloud on the horizon - no bigger than a man’s hand - growing unemployment, with the possibility that it may foreshadow economic collapse - is of great concern.

Never before in our history has there been a greater need for men of integrity and courage in public service. Never before in our history has there been a greater need for the people to take up willingly the responsibilities of free government. As the problems that face us have become more complex, as the responsibilities of government become enlarged, there has been a corresponding assumption of authority by the state. It is obvious from the history of the past twenty years that whether we like it or not, whether we be Republicans or Democrats, the government will continue to play an increasingly large part in our lives. The theme of today – the scarlet thread that runs throughout all of the thoughts and actions of people all over the world – is one of resignation of great problems to the all – absorbing hands of the great leviathan – the state. This trend is not divisible – we in the United States suffer from it, if less intensely.

It is therefore of more than pressing importance that we become increasingly concerned with maintaining the authority of the people over the government, with maintaining the principle of “government by the people, for the people”.

As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “every government degenerates when trusted to the rules of the people alone. The people themselves are the only safe depositories”.

With the important decisions affecting our own prospects for survival that our government must make; with the never-ending fight for personal liberty and self-government, it comes as somewhat of a shock to realize the indifference of the average citizen to the privilege of the secret ballot. The right to vote in a free election is the basic characteristic of a free county. If our right to vote in a free election is limited, to that degree free government in this country is limited.

The continued failure of a great percentage of voters to exercise their franchise must inevitably lead to the destruction of truly representative government.

It is interesting to note that some countries, believing that non-voting could lead to the destruction of free government, have insisted on compulsory balloting. Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, Bulgaria, Holland, Austria, New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, and Belgium, have penalties for non-voters; all of them except Holland Czechoslovakia, dating from before the war.

Belgium for example began to compel voters as early as 1893 with a series of penalties – culminating in a penalty for the fourth failure to vote within fifteen years of a fine and the removal of the voter’s name from the register for ten years, during which time he may receive from the state no promotion, distinction or nomination to public office in local or central government.

Though the franchise has been greatly widened in Belgium since 1893, abstentions from voting have never been higher than 7.5%. But from 1899 to 1912 it needed 24,819 convictions of various degrees to secure this result.

We in America, however, have always believed it alien to free government to force through compulsion a citizen to vote. We have always believed that an election is not free unless the citizen has the choice of voting or not voting. Nevertheless, we have paid heavily in protecting this right.

Certainly, statistics of American voting records seem to make it clear that a heavy percentage of our citizens do not consider it a civic duty to vote. And figures of the 1948 and 1944 presidential elections show that the non-voting trend has not been stopped.

In 1948 a total vote of 43,833,680 was cast out of a potential voting population of 93,704,000; or a percentage of 52%. This was, percentage-wise, a drop in voting of 7.7% from the 59.7% of potential voters who exercised their right in 1944.

These figures in years when voters cast greatly exceed the number of votes in off-years are not encouraging. The severity of this non-voting problem in the United States is accentuated when we compare the voting records of other countries.

While less than 50% of the potential vote was case in our national elections, last fall, Italy, a country with only a brief Democratic experience, cast 89% of its potential total vote in its election of a year ago.

While our record of voting in presidential elections is unfortunate enough, the percentage of those who take advantage of the right to vote in local elections is far less. There has been in many parts of the country a feeling that local elections are not important. Let those who say that remember the words of the great patriot, Henry Grattan, that: “Control over local affairs is the very essence of liberty”.

Or listen to the words of a great Southerner, Andrew Jackson, in his second inaugural address: “My experience in public concerns and the observation of a life somewhat advanced, confirms the opinions long since imbibed by me, that the destructions of our state governments or the annihilation of their control over the local concerns of the people would lead directly to revolution and anarchy. In a recent election in a small city of my native state, only 14% of those eligible to vote went to the pools. If the people of that city had been told that only 14% of the people would be allowed to vote, they would have protested vigorously against this infringement of their rights as citizens. But, as it was, the people of that city forgot that freedom is never secure; that it must be won again and again.

In this coming election in the great city of Miami, go to the polls and vote – not only because you want your city to be well governed, but as an act of faith in the future of the great Republic of the United States.

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. House of Representatives Files. Series 2.2. Boston Office Speech Files, 1946-1952. Box 95, Folder: "Miami Jr. Chamber of Commerce, 19 October 1949".