In Search for the Right To Vote

Posted by M ws On Wednesday, October 3, 2012 0 comments
Harpers Magazine featured a very thought-provoking article written by Victoria Bassetti on In Search of the Right To Vote.

From Electoral Dysfunction, released in September by the New Press, in conjunction with a PBS documentary of the same name.

The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case.
—Thomas Paine, Dissertation on First Principles of Government (1795)

In 1806, when Thomas Paine walked into his New Rochelle polling station to cast his vote for the congressional election, he was turned away, denied the ballot. The Tory election inspectors asserted that he was not an American and that he had been renounced by George Washington. He told them they were wrong on both counts, but one of the inspectors threatened to have him arrested, and Paine left without voting. He pursued the matter in court and lost. He had no right to vote in the nation that now counts him one of its Founders.

In the two centuries since Paine’s disenfranchisement, the Constitution has been amended numerous times to address voting issues. In the twelve years since the 2000 presidential election, billions of dollars have been thrown at the mechanics of voting—the machines we use, the way we register—and there have been legislative initiatives in almost every state targeting voter-identification requirements as well as early- and absentee-voting rules. But one thing has not changed since the day Paine walked into his New York polling station. The Constitution still does not guarantee the right to vote.

The word “vote” appears in the Constitution as originally drafted only in relation to how representatives, senators, and presidential electors perform their duties. Representatives vote. But the people’s vote is not mentioned. The Constitution gives Congress the right to pass copyright and bankruptcy laws, the right to borrow money, the right to establish post offices, the right to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” Congress was required to keep a journal of its proceedings. Members of Congress were guaranteed a salary. Amid this wealth of detail, scarcely a word is spent on how the people are to vote.

Even in the Bill of Rights, which made a slew of individual rights explicit, the Constitution did not mention a right to vote. The right to assemble and to petition government was established. The right to trial by jury (in civil disputes where the value exceeds $20), to due process of law, to confront witnesses in criminal cases, to keep and bear arms? Yes. Voting rights? No. It’s almost as if in the course of constructing a house, the contractor ordered the windows, curtains, and shingles, but completely forgot about the foundation.

Contrary to many common accounts, the Founders were not stiff-necked, antidemocratic elitists hostile to the swarm of unwashed voters. But during that hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787, the adage that politics is the art of the possible held sway. It was not politically practicable to impose uniform suffrage laws across the former colonies. Was the fragile new federal government really going to tell South Carolina that free blacks could vote? Or was it going to have to do the opposite and tell Massachusetts, which did allow blacks to vote, that it would have to stop? Easier to let state laws and provisions dealing with the vote stand.

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