The Political Season 2016 – The Right and Responsibility to Vote

“Voting is a civic sacrament.” ~ The Rev.  Theodore M. Hesburgh

According to an article in The Atlantic, the right to vote is mentioned five times in the Constitution of the United States, more than any other right, including the rights to “the freedom of speech,” the “free exercise” of religion, “to keep and bear Arms,” or “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Yet there is strong disagreement among experts — including elected officials, Constitutional scholars and Supreme Court Justices — whether the Constitution grants the right to vote or rather implies that it is merely a privilege. But if the right to vote — and not the privilege to vote — is mentioned five times, in those words, it seems pretty iron-clad to me that it is indeed a right and not merely a privilege. I decided to check.

The Right to Vote

What I found was, indeed, the “five times” to which the article refers; namely, the Amendments to the Constitution in which the words, “right to vote,” are clearly spelled out, as follows:

Amendment XIV

This is a hefty Amendment that addresses several issues, including the reduction of a state’s representation in the House of Representatives if it denies the right to vote to any male over the age of 21 who has not broken the law. It also defines citizenship at the state and federal levels regardless of race for both born and naturalized citizens; states that citizens cannot be deprived of “life, liberty or property” without “due process of law”; that “no person” can be denied “equal protection of the laws”; that no state is allowed to “make or enforce any laws that abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens” and rules regarding the qualifications of federal elected officials and the public debt.

Amendment XV

Grants the right to vote to all men 21 and older regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Amendment XIX

Grants the right to vote to women. 

Amendment XXIV

Protects the right to vote despite poll or any government tax or fee not being paid.

Amendment XXVI

Grants the right to vote to citizens who are 18 years of age or older, reducing the voting age from 21.

Explicit versus Implicit

The aforementioned five Amendments appear to me to be quite explicit that U.S. citizens have the right to vote for the people who they wish to represent them in the self-governing model described in the Constitution. Unless the word “right” meant something different a couple of centuries ago than it does today, I am in the “explicit” camp myself. There are other references to voting in the Constitution that imply the right to vote, using the words, “chosen,” “vote by ballot,” and “elected by the people” (please see below); but that does not take away from the specific wording regarding the right to vote that appears in the five cited Amendments.

  • Article. I. “Section. 2. The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People…”
  • Amendment XII “Note: A portion of Article II, section 1 of the Constitution was superseded by the 12th amendment. The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President…”
  • Amendment XVII “Note: Article I, section 3, of the Constitution was modified by the 17th amendment. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years…”

Bush v. Gore 2000

That being stated, our right to vote has never been challenged in the way that it was in the 2000 Presidential election. Many believe that the Supreme Court undermined our right to vote in Bush v. Gore. Democrats, of course, believe the Republicans stole the election in the controversy over the Florida ballots in a state where the governor was also the brother of the Republican Presidential candidate and the U.S. House of Representatives was controlled by the Republicans. But many Americans also believe that the Supreme Court’s intervention in the election produced a partisan, and even unconstitutional, decision.

The controversy over Bush v. Gore may never be settled and it would be interesting to see how history looks back on it 100 years from now. For now, though, it appears that our right to vote remains intact.

The Responsibility to Vote

But the experience of the 2000 election demonstrated just how precious our right to vote is. This year, once again, we have been voting up a storm in the primaries and caucuses for President.  And we’re getting ready to head to the polls on Tuesday, November 8, to elect a President and Commander In Chief, along with a Vice President and many so-called down-ballot Congressional, Senatorial and other state and local candidates (although down-ballot primaries are still scheduled, including some that occurred today!).

But not all of us will exercise our right to vote. According to calculations reported by Pew Research, only 58% of eligible U.S. citizens voted in the 2012 Presidential election. For a government run by the people why is it that more than 40% don’t vote? And, voting in mid-term elections is even worse. According to an article in Time the voter turnout in the 2014 mid-terms reached a low that hadn’t been seen since “1942, when only 33.9% of voters cast ballots” — “when Hitler was still in power, and Mitch McConnell was only nine months old.” While we Americans have the right to vote, we are not required to vote. It is simply the responsibility of every citizen to do so. To be sure, there are stumbling blocks to voting for many citizens. Some might be elderly or temporary or permanently disabled and find it difficult to impossible to get to the polls, and once they are there it can be confusing to navigate the method of voting at some polling place. Others might be away on the day or days they are permitted to vote, or they might be living outside the U.S., and forget to send in their absentee ballots. Military personnel have their own issues with voting, especially when they are stationed overseas or distracted by being in in the midst of war. And, then there is the issue of voter suppression.

Therefore, not only is it healthy for us as a nation to increase the numbers of citizens who vote in Presidential elections, but also significantly increase the numbers of citizens who vote in mid-term elections, when U.S. representatives and senators, state legislators, governors, mayors and even the proverbial dog-catcher are elected. It is not just the President that affects our lives, it is our local elected officials as well; and the latter may impact us more in our day-to-day lives, with state and local taxes, transportation routes and schedules, school issues, healthcare facilities and health insurance offerings, fire and police services, public health monitoring and so on. And, if the balance in Congress is important to citizens, it is essential that they get out and vote in the mid-terms.

To help ensure that everyone has a voice in governing his or her country, we should all (1) register if that is a requirement, (2) arrange with our employers for time to vote and make sure we have transportation and know where our voting place is located and (3) then make sure to follow through and vote! We can also help to make it possible for others to vote by checking with organizations such as Rock the Vote and AAUW, as well as local community groups to find out what can be done to assist voters in registering, obtaining absentee ballots, transporting them to the polls, and so on.

Knowing U.S. History, Sifting Through the Issues

Another very important box for voters to check is being well informed on the issues. And, those who say that the issues are more complicated today and difficult to figure out because candidates put their own spin on them are probably under 40 years old. Those of us who have been around for many decades know that the only things that are new under the sun are the Internet and 24/7 news/talk shows. That alone, of course, can complicate straightforward issues, which can turn into legislation, treaties, acts, orders, etc., depending on who is elected. Then there are the laws, trade deals and treaties already on the books that are complicated because they have to cover so many details and possibilities and address as thoroughly and accurately as possible the problems they are intended to solve, and so on. We have elected officials and their staffs that are responsible to pore over, analyze and decide on issues for us.

However, the silver lining in the massive amount of information available to us ordinary citizens is that we can research and learn as much as possible about the important issues of the day. I believe that it is necessary to check many news outlets and listen to all candidates, not just the ones we support. Hearing varying viewpoints might not necessarily change one’s mind about who she or he will support but it can surface questions to ask candidates and provide more angles to consider. Reading and watching a variety of mainstream publications and TV shows and monitoring C-SPAN as well as specialty media, and reading carefully through the candidates’ websites can provide a fairly decent grasp of what’s what.

Equally important is to be educated about the basics of our democracy in order to form good judgments about candidates. It is still shocking to me that many Americans know so little about our Constitution, history, landmark accomplishments and decisions, branches of government, current major elected or appointed officials, etc. Back when I was attending parochial school in the ’50s and ’60s in Chicago, we had to pass a civics test in order to graduate, first on our state government and the Illinois Constitution, then on the federal government’s history, Constitution and current events. Today that doesn’t seem to be a requirement in every state, although some level of civics education is taught in all states. Is the civics education we are teaching our children enough, and should it be more robust? In addition, immigrants who aspire to citizenship must, among other tasks, answer 10 questions taken from a list of 100 and get six correct; see if you can answer this sampling of 10 questions! If you can, great, but remember there are 90 more and to become a citizen any six selected must be answered correctly, so it is necessary to know the answers to all 100.

There Oughta Be a Law

A healthy electorate in which all eligible citizens vote can contribute to making the U.S. stronger and fairer. The fact that we typically have lower than ideal voter turnout begs the question, should it be mandatory for all U.S. citizens to vote, just as it is the law that citizens must pay taxes and complete jury duty when summoned? What do you think?

Until and unless there is a law on the books that requires all eligible U.S. citizens to vote, it’s important to exercise our right — and responsibility — to use that vote. I hope everyone will vote in their respective primary elections and certainly in the general election on Tuesday, November 8. The countdown is on!

Next week please join me as the Wedding Series continues.

Until next time,

Jeanne 

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