Part II -Voting
One fact about voting that we hear about is that only about 50% of eligible voters actually vote. That number is actually worse if you consider that for non-presidential elections and local elections the turnout is usually much lower. In addition, many people are not eligible to vote. Many states disenfranchise people who have been convicted of certain classes of crimes and voter suppression efforts have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of people.
But even among people who can vote the majority often fail to do so. There are many explanations for this, from people being too busy or not being interested in politics, to the inconvenience of the process (election day is a work day, many states do not allow early voting etc). This year in particular gave credence to the old adage that if god had wanted us to vote she would have given us candidates.
What is hard to fathom is that so many people fought and in some cases died to gain the right to vote - women, Blacks, people who did not own property, Irish, Italians, and Jews among others. This began at the very start of the Republic, well, really before the Republic started. Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband who was attending the constitutional convention and admonished him to “remember the ladies.” Apparently he forgot because women would fight for over 100 years to gain suffrage.
There are those who advocate for interpreting the Constitution based on the original intent of the founders. Perhaps they do not realize that in the first presidential elections only about 6% of the population was eligible to vote - or perhaps they understand that perfectly and would like to return to the days when voting was limited to white males of property and means. After all, the founders were no fans of democracy. James Madison expressed a widely held belief among the founders when he said "democracy was too precious to waste on the common man."
Most were petrified of "democracy" where the "great unwashed" i.e. people without education, wealth or proper dispositions (e.g. women) would select office holders. Perhaps that is why the rate of desertion among soldiers in the American Revolution (those sunshine patriots) was so high. Those doing the fighting were not expected to have a say in the governance of the new Republic. Interestingly, after fighting the War of Independence the commitment to voting was almost non-existent. Although just 6% of the population were eligible to vote in the first presidential election only 38,818 people out of a population of about 3 million (2.4 million free) actually voted for a voting percentage of about 21%. So George Washington was elected with only 1.3% of the population voting - quite the mandate!. But it got worse. Two years later only 13,332 people voted out of population then estimated at 3.9 million or less than 0.5%. Democracy got off to a slow start.
So who should be allowed to vote and what is the best process to select a president? It is tempting to say that everyone should be allowed, perhaps required, to vote but this not only goes against our entire history as a nation but there does not seem to be a practical way to make it happen especially when it is in so many groups’ vested interest to reduce the voters in opposing groups. Universal suffrage may be an American ideal that people across a broad spectrum of the political landscape espouse but it has never been achieved and seems unlikely to be in the future.
Many techniques have been tried or suggested - "motor-voter" (including voter registration with motor vehicle registration), automatic registration, same day registration and innumerable get out the vote campaigns. So far none seem to have had a substantial or lasting effect on voting participation.
Some political scientists have suggested that voting should be restricted to those who have at least a baseline knowledge of government, politics, policy and candidates. Or if not restricted that those who are more knowledgeable should be given more votes or have their votes count more. This has been tried with voter literacy tests. While we usually think of those tests as Jim Crow tools to stop African-Americans from voting they actually began in Connecticut in 1855 to disenfranchise immigrants. New York City did much the same in the 1920s and similar tests were used by many states in the north and the south. Literacy tests were not banned by Congress until 1975.
What limits on voting are acceptable? If not knowledge or literacy as thresholds, what about people with dementia, cognitive impairment or developmental disabilities? One concern has been that someone is likely to influence or manipulate those with impairments. But aren’t the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on campaign advertising and activities meant to influence and manipulate as many of us as possible? Should such activities be prohibited?
While today people are no longer technically prohibited from voting based on race, sex, religion or ethnicity, voter exclusion is more subtle and tactical. Polling places are moved to inconvenient locations, are reduced in number to create long waits, and names are purged from voter rolls. People who have committed crimes and "paid their debt to society" are excluded from voting in many states. This seems ironic since one might suggest that former criminals are uniquely qualified to judge many of our politicians.
I'll leave it there until we wrap up next week with Part III- Determining a Winner.
One Small Voice
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