“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, 1795
Since Bush v. Gore in 2000, money has been raining down at the mechanics of voting, transforming the machines we use as well as redefining suffrage laws. With all these changes, one thing has remained the same: the Constitution still does not guarantee the right to vote.
As Victoria Bassetti elaborates in her essay “In Search of the Right to Vote” in this month’s Harper’s Magazine, “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.”
The same holds true in the Bill of Rights. Yes, we can keep and bear arms. Yes, we are entitled to due process of law. No, we do not have explicit voting rights.
The explanation is straightforward and should sound oddly similar to current state quarrels. With such competing interests (slavery) between the Northern and Southern states, who was the federal government to decide uniform suffrage laws? Better to just leave it up to the states. Even with the hot summer days in Philadelphia behind us, we find ourselves stuck in pretty much the same place.
The Supreme Court affirmed this history by declaring after Bush v. Gore, “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College.”
Well, who cares, you might ask. After all, almost all elections are local. Well, it matters when states pass laws about who has the right to vote that are in conflict with another state’s law. It’s our modern day slavery. Who will be subject to whom and why?
Indiana enacted its voter identification law in 2005, which depending on the estimate affects between 43,000 and 400,000 people in the state who either do not have a government-issued photo ID or find themselves in a catch-22, unable to get the required ID because they lack another form of ID and vice versa. At the same time, Missouri (who takes the stage with nearly 68 percent of their eligible voters casting ballots in 2008 in comparison to 59 percent in Indiana) tried to pass a similar law which was quickly struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court. Six of the seven justices held firmly to their stated belief that “due to the more expansive and concrete protections of the right to vote under the Missouri Constitution, voting rights are an area where our state constitution provides greater protection than its federal counterpart.”
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t vote. You should and should do so whenever the opportunity presents itself. Rather, it’s a reminder that besides the problems on stage between President Obama and Governor Romney, there are significant and troubling problems with the theatre they propose to lead from. With states granted so much power, especially in the arena of voting, make sure you know where Colorado stands and what you are willing to do and say to support or oppose legislation. Hold yourself accountable to a higher level of civic engagement. That goes beyond standing in line at your designated voting precinct
Gena Akers can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.