Politics is always full of contradictions, and hypocrisy, but a significant one now in play are the new (and proposed) laws and state constitutional amendments to require a more restrictive voter ID. Over a dozen states have either passed such laws in the past two years; or are in the process of doing so for as early as the Nov 6 election. Adding to this is the irony that many of those who favor these laws and amendments are those aggressively adamant about their fidelity to our Federal Constitution and historic American values.
Well, actually these laws and amendments run contrary to the way our Constitution was ratified…the changes it later sparked regarding voter rights…and the 225 year history of voter enhancing enfranchisement in our nation.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, and subsequent ratification of the Constitution, the American electorate was modeled after most European nations – dominated by monarchs and with enfranchisement to vote highly restricted and limited to wealthy males, often connected to royalty. Thus, at birth, we too were far from a “democratic” nation. The process of ratifying our Constitution changed that and stimulated a powerful desire for voter reform. Indeed, that was an essential element of what the Revolutionary War was about.
Consequently, when it came to ratifying the Constitution in the period of 1787-1790 (when it was finally adopted) it was at that point in history the greatest, broadest, most unrestricted voter plebiscite in the history of mankind. It was the first time that the people of a nation freely determined their form of government. Not trusting the (13) State Legislatures to ratify, special state constitutional conventions were established specifically to debate the charter and consummate the process. And in electing those representatives, legacy voting laws were significantly broadened. While it was true that both women and slaves were excluded (more about that later), the requirements for property ownership and other restrictions were modified and lessened. As Ben Franklin stated so succinctly is breaking down property ownership requirements:
“Today a man owns a jackass worth 50 dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?”
Of greater importance is the fact that the changes in voter qualifications, though only incremental in the Constitutional ratification, later led to the acceptance and inertia for added reform. The struggle for ratification was not easy, and involved sophisticated arguments about politics and constitutional theory thus creating a better informed electorate. It was also the first national political controversy in American history; the people of all thirteen states for the first time debated and decided the same issue; and foretold of both future such debates (as we now have with the voter ID amendment) and specifically the issue of broadening our voter mandate.
And broaden we did. Throughout the years restrictions diminished, and in 1920, with the adoption of the 19th Amendment women were given the right to vote. Next, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 we outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities and women; and unequal application of voter registration requirements. Prior to these voter ID amendments, there was rarely movements in our history to create more restrictions (the offensive Jim Crow laws an exception); the long term thrust has always been to be more inclusive.
The point of all this is simply: if you respect and cherish our Constitution, you should recall that one of the major benefits it conferred on our country was the expansion of voter enfranchisement. Restrictions were not added, they were significantly reduced to encourage participation. Moreover, in the election of the state constitutional conventions the concept of greater participation was not only desired, it was critical if we were to become the nation envisioned by our Founding Fathers (regardless of how such a vote may have turned out for or against ratification). A nation by and for the people, and broadly approved.
Beyond that, if you cherish American history, recall that it has been a continuum of inclusion, greater voting rights, expanding the franchise, and encouraging wider participation. The voter ID laws and amendments passed and proposed, run contrary to all that history. So, when it comes to acceptance of already passed laws, or voting on laws and amendments now being considered, we all have a opportunity to decide on which side of history we want to be.