The Constitutional Right to Vote Blog: Assumptions

by Jo McKeegan, Right to Vote Blog // Published March 21, 2011
6a00d8341c60bf53ef0133f584cedf970b 800wi

You’ve heard the assumptions: Young people vote Democratic. So do unmarried women, African Americans, city-dwellers and people with felony convictions. Church-goers vote Republican, as do rich people, small business owners and soldiers.  If you  fit into categories from each group, who knows, you may be a Libertarian or Green.

  By 4th grade, most people have heard the spelling-tip about what happens when you assume traits about other people: “you make an ass out of u and me.” Yet, we keep assuming voting preferences based on age, race, religion, education and location. Many of these assumptions are said to be based on strong statistical evidence that proves people of a certain demographic are more likely to vote a particular party. This leads to politicians in their “candidate hats” to, consciously and subconsciously, ignoring broad segments of society which they see as unwinnable and outside their party’s support base. 

  More dangerously, however, it seems to affect what electoral laws politicians support when wearing their “hats” as policymakers. It’s heartbreaking to see both parties passing/repealing laws affecting suffrage in the name of high principle, when it’s crystal clear that they wouldn’t be taking action if they didn’t think it helped their party.

  But, what if we didn’t pigeon-hole voters? What legislation would politicians propose and pass if we refused to tolerate their calculations on how electoral rules affect  their party and instead demanded that principles and voters come first? The idea that people’s fundamental rights are upheld and denied based only on the likelihood of their exercising them is a deeply disturbing thought in a nation where basic human rights are considered “unalienable” and “endowed by the creator.’ Yet the actions and words of many politicians leave little room for doubt that such denials of basic rights are occurring. 

  This year, it’s easy to pick on Republicans, as they’ve moved into power in many states. Here are just a few examples of new legislation and executive orders:

Young voters: 

  • Some Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have proposed voter ID laws which would ban the use of college ids as identification when voting. This means a college student attempting to vote in Wisconsin would need to have obtained an in-state driver’s license or use a passport to vote.The bill is currently being debated.

  • Similarly, multiple states are attempting to enact similar voter ID laws.  While many analysts claim that proven instances of voter fraud are miniscule, many conservative politicians decry voter fraud as a serious concern to the validity of our elections.  Regardless of the rate of occurrence of voter fraud, imposing ID laws on voters seems to be a solution in search of a proven problem, yet will disproportionately affect those who cannot afford the time and money on obtaining a driver’s license only to use during voting, such as those who live in senior citizen homes, low income persons, students who move to a new state for school, and people with disabilities.  

  • Leading New Hampshire Republicans proposed HB 176 that would have only allowed students to vote in their college town  if their parents lived in the town as well; House Speaker William O’Brie justified the disenfranchisement by stating the college students have little “life experience . . . they just vote their feelings.” Enough other Republicans opposed the bill to block action.

  • Republican lawmakers in states like North Carolina and Minnesota have suggested repealing Same Day Voter Registration, laws that can increase college-age citizen voting up about 10% during major elections. Ironically, Republican just swept 15 of 18 legislatures in the nine states with same-day voter registration, but still seems to be worried that in a presidential year with Barack Obama on the ballot, young people will vote Democratic

Low-income voters:  

  • Passed in the wake of the Civil War, the 14th amendment to the Constitution left an explicit hole in protection of suffrage rights tied to ‘participation in rebellion, or other crime.” Some states have taken actions to deprive citizens with felony convictions of their suffrage rights under such justification. Laws vary widely state by state. Those favoring disenfranchisement nearly always are Republicans. This year, Iowa’s governor Terry Branstad rescinded an executive order from 2005 allowing people with prior felony convictions to automatically have their right to vote reinstated.  Branstad wasted no time, revoking the order less than two hours after taking office.  Now, Iowans need to personally apply to have their right reinstated.

  • This month, Florida governor Rick Scott voted to force people who have served time for a felony conviction to wait five to seven years before applying for the right to vote, a move that makes Florida’s law the harshest in the country.  Pervious to Scott’s actions, Florida’s laws had been slowly moving into the 21st century because of the actions of Charlie Crist, actions that defied party norms. (For more useful write-ups, see blogs from Progressive States and Nonprofit Vote.) Similarly, as people with previous felony convictions are generally assumed to vote for Democrats, there have been pushes from Republican law makers to make the re-enfranchisement of prior felons even more difficult in other states as well.

 

Yet, the Democrats deserve scrutiny as well. Do Democrats worry enough about the potential of voter fraud, however unfounded most claims of it are? Would Democrats fight for voting rights for college students, and citizens with felony convictions if they didn’t believe they would be gaining votes? Evidence from their stances on issues like redistricting would suggest many would not. 

  Principle seems a lot easier to fight for when it helps your side, which is why former Florida governor Charlie Crist deserves praise for putting democratic principles first. It was his sensible improvements to policies affecting people with felony convictions that Gov. Scott has overturned. Crist also signed legislation establishing voter pre-registration for 16-year-olds.

  It’s time to rise above the partisan fray when enacting policies that affect our fundamental citizenship rights. In the government acknowledgment of basic civil/human rights, when did party affiliation become the barometer in which the importance of an issue is measured? Why are rights, if they are so fundamental to the workings of a free society, treated like nothing more than a political hot potato?

  Some suggest that we don’t need an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution, because we already have secured voting rights without such a lengthy undertaking. But it’s these examples of the weakening of that delicate, inadequately guaranteed right that illustrate the need for something more stable - specifically codified in the Constitution to protect our ability to have a voice in government, no matter who we want to vote into office.