Tomorrow is election day here in the U.S., though it’s an off-year, so it’s mostly local elections, bond votes, and the occasional state constitutional amendment. I plan on voting, and I vote every chance I get. In fact, it’s a bit strange that I haven’t already voted because I’ve become a big fan of early voting in the last few years. (Notably, I had to bust out of the hospital to vote in the 2008 presidential primary, so I don’t like to leave things until election day.)
Voting and science fiction almost inevitably brings up Robert Heinlein’s novel “Starship Troopers.” In that novel, the voting franchise was limited to “veterans”. A “veteran” was not necessarily someone who had been a soldier, but rather someone who had volunteered for a two-year stint in “Federal Service”. Whether a soldier or not, these service jobs were apparently all fairly hazardous. Only after retiring from federal service could you vote or hold public office. The book focuses mostly on the soldiers, so both fans and critics tend to look on the rule as “only combat veterans get to vote,” even though the book made it clear there were non-military paths.
The argument for this was that the responsibility of voting should be reserved for those who have demonstrated an understanding of individual sacrifice for the greater good, i.e. voting is not about getting something for myself but about getting something for everybody else. Whether or not Heinlein himself felt that the voting franchise should be so restricted, the book makes a fairly passionate argument for it.
Critics have often equated this with fascism or military dictatorship. The 1997 movie of the same name was perhaps the greatest critique along those lines as it showed the Terran leaders as being active-duty military officers wearing remarkably Nazi-like uniforms. The movie also varied from the book in enough other ways that I don’t consider it to be a valid representation of Heinlein’s original argument on restricting the franchise to those who have already served. (The director has stated that he read only the first few chapters of the book.)
However, one thing that the movie did do was to bring up this argument again for a new generation. I was at a WorldCon in Baltimore (1998, I think), and I attended what was supposed to be a late night panel on Starship Troopers. Instead of a proper panel, it devolved into a roundtable discussion between all attendees. The arguments pro and con went round and round, complete with epitaphs of “Nazi” and “commie” and what have you.
I had not said much at all in that discussion, mostly just observing. (As a side note, I grow weary of the vitriol of many folks who are so fixed in their positions they are unwilling to entertain the notion that they might be wrong, and this discussion was filled with that kind of vitriol.) But eventually, someone turned to me and said, “You’ve been pretty quiet. What’s your take on it?”
I replied, “It seems to me that those of you arguing for the veteran-only vote are people who would be willing to make that sacrifice to earn the right to vote, while those of you arguing against it are people unwilling to make that sacrifice and just don’t want to agree with a system that would deprive you of the right you currently enjoy.”
I got two reactions. From those arguing for it, I got a chorus of “Fucking A!” From those arguing against it, silence.
I wasn’t surprised by the response from the pro-Heinlein crowd, but I was disappointed in the response from the others. I had hoped that instead of arguing against the likely results of such a system (again, the Nazi or militarism arguments) they would offer an argument for the right to vote for those unwilling to give up two years for some level of community service, that those voters deserved the right to vote or that they offered a unique and valuable voice that would not come from those who had already served.
Personally, I’m a little torn. I like to think that if I found myself in the world of Starship Troopers, I would have signed up and done my two years. However, in this world, I have never done so. I considered it strongly after high school, but pressure from my parents pushed me into college, and after that marriage, job, and kids kept me away from such a choice. I find that as the years go by, I regret that more and more. I still seriously consider making the switch to some kind of community service job in my later years, perhaps teaching. But I continue to vote now, without having made that choice.
I’ve gotten into the habit of closing these with a question, so my question to you is this: If you did have to do two years of community or military service to earn the right to vote, would you do it, and what kind of service do you think you would do? Don’t feel you have to restrict yourself to Heinlein’s choices of soldier or medical test subject. Instead, consider the many thankless jobs we have in today’s society.