The right to vote in America needs to mean more
Published: Thursday, August 30, 2012
Updated: Thursday, August 30, 2012 22:08
Suffrage is the cornerstone of any liberal democracy. Without it, that a government rules at the request or with the consent of the governed. We see, moreover, from its exercise in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia – the world’s newest democracies – that the symbolic value of suffrage is inestimably great. The act of voting, after all, wrests sovereignty of a political community from autocrats, dictators, oligarchs and party apparatchiks and places it squarely in the hands of an empowered citizenry. It is dismaying that the United States, the most revered and influential among the world’s democratic polities, does not bestow upon its citizens the right to vote.
Never mind that our president and vice president are selected by an arcane institution known as the Electoral College and that the voters are only permitted to select slates of electors who pledge to support a certain ticket. The problem at hand is far more fundamental than that: citizens do not have a constitutional right to select even those electors. Never mind that our Constitution has been amended four times to expand the privilege of voting beyond a small elite class of white, property-holding males. Those amendments have only had the effect of barring disfranchisement for certain specific reasons – race, sex, age, color, previous condition of servitude – and it remains quite clear that suffrage can be denied for myriad other reasons. In fact, the Constitution will not protect you from disfranchisement in many states if, for example, you are a convicted felon or an inmate, cannot produce photo identification or have recently moved into a new voting precinct or district.
The problem lies in the fact that the Constitution, per the 10th Amendment, largely leaves the determination of voting privileges and qualifications to the individual states. The Supreme Court, through a seldom-read paragraph of the Bush v Gore decision of 2000, declared that “the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President,” and perhaps more disturbingly, that “the State, after granting the franchise…can take back the power to appoint electors.” This is, to be sure, just as the framers of the Constitution intended. They would have believed that an unconditional endorsement of universal suffrage would imperil the national welfare. But we, today, should believe far more strongly in the edifying power of suffrage to transform the disinterested and disadvantaged among us into participants in the American experiment of rule by the people. Just as we determined decades ago that women, blacks and young people should not be denied access to the franchise, we need now to assert that voting is a right and a duty incumbent upon all adult American citizens, no matter how poor or transient or delinquent.
Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. of Illinois made such an assertion eleven years ago, though it went largely unnoticed. After the chaos and tribulation of the 2000 election, Jackson introduced a proposed constitutional amendment which read in part, “All citizens of the United States who are eighteen years or older shall have the right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides. The right to vote shall not be denied or abridged…except that the United States or any state may establish regulations narrowly tailored to produce efficient and honest elections.” If an individual right to vote had been enshrined in the Constitution, there would have been no electoral crisis in Florida. there would likely be little controversy over the unconstitutionality of strict photo ID laws, and voters would no longer need to read between the lines of statutes and constitutions to find an implicit right to cast a ballot. That right would instead be explicit, affirmative and undeniable.
There is a powerful symbolic effect of bestowing the right to vote, as we have all seen in the photographs of Iraqis and Afghans holding up purple ink-stained fingers. It conveys the idea that the individual matters, that he is responsible for the government and welfare of his community, be it local, regional or national. A 21st-century democracy cannot deprive any adult individual of this powerful sense of cohesion and civic duty. We must either give citizenship a more practical and symbolic meaning by creating a constitutional right to vote, or drop at once all pretension of the United States being a democracy.