Sunday, November 3, 2013

Maybe We Should Establish That Americans Have a Right to Vote?

For the class I TA the students had to create a constitutional amendment. There were plenty of fairly frivolous ones reflecting a distinct college freshman outlook (lower the drinking age, etc). The most popular choice was a gay marriage amendment. A couple others that were surprisingly popular were a balanced budget amendment (which would be horrible policy but it sounds good!) and a drug testing amendment for everyone receiving public assistance. This one was fairly shocking to me. I don't think it occured to the students that most of them would have to be tested (pell grants or federally subsidized student loans) and their grandmothers too (medicare and social security above what they paid in). I'm being too literal, of course. We all know that only certain kinds of government handouts, to certain kinds of people, "count" as handouts. All the rest is the just deserts of a hardworking citizenry.

Anyway, that was all prelude to the constitutional amendment I would propose if given the chance. At first I thought something to do with education would be useful, to require the breakdown of our immoral system of segregation and inequality. But actually doing that via constitutional amendment could get extremely complicated really fast and could cause more harm than good. I'll leave that to others to think through. My amendment has the advantage of being at once desperately needed and extremely simple, with zero negative externalities.

It's simply this: we need a constitutional right to vote. Most people probably aren't aware that we don't already have one. We should pass an amendment that establishes an unequivocal and unalienable right to vote. (Yes, serial killers on death row would be able to vote. Get all your outrage out now.) What a robust and explicit right in the constitution would do, I imagine, is make it much more difficult for states to try, as they are now, all sorts of underhanded tactics to reduce voting participation.

This amendment would not have a chance at this point, though. The reason is that the White countermovement that defeated the civil rights movement decades ago is still active. People don't realize that there is a proud American tradition, embraced by many of the founders, that sees voting by common people as deeply dangerous. The thing that is so frustrating about the current political climate is that average people have so thoroughly rejected those anti-democratic norms that the proponents of vote suppression have to invent causes out of whole cloth: now they're "protecting" the vote and ensuring its "integrity," preventing "fraud." It's so deeply cynical and disgusting.

The racial component of this is interesting too. For many states, one of the major perks of their vote restrictions is that they disenfranchise astonishing percentages of their Black population because they don't allow felons to vote, in some cases even those who have served their time. (Of course, these people often wind up in the system in the first place because of racism.) There is perhaps no other area of public policy in which the gap between rhetoric and reality is so large. The vote suppression laws that are rampant now are racist laws. Yet in many quarters being honest about these basic facts is the offense, not the laws themselves. John Stennis would be so proud.

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