Saturday, March 21, 2015

Voting Rights Under Undue Stress and Pressure: Our Entire System Very Shaky

Give us our way on voting or get blown to smithereens !!! 

GOP ideal voting scheme by 2016

Quite long, so bear with me ... voting rights is a worthwhile and timely issue.

Since the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder conservative governments in the South and elsewhere have raced to introduce new voting restrictions. Most prominent in the attacks is the comprehensive vote-restriction law passed by the Republican majority in the North Carolina legislature. Their laws (1) cut back early voting, (2) restrict private groups from conducting voter-registration drives, (3) eliminate election-day voter registration, and (4) impose the strictest voter ID rules in the country. There is evidence that Republican legislatures elsewhere will follow North Carolina's lead (and in fact, many have – some ruled against, but that has not stopped the GOP from sustaining that effort).

Let’s face it, neither the American people nor the federal courts would tolerate restrictions like on voting rights if they were imposed on: (1) freedom of speech, (2) freedom to assemble, (3) freedom of religion, or (4) freedom to petition government for redress of grievances. Many Southern states – and probably a majority of the Supreme Court – would reject far less onerous restrictions on the right (5) to keep and bear arms. Note that each of those rights is mentioned only once in the Constitution whereas the “right to vote” is mentioned five times. Yet, this Court has brushed that aside with lingo such as “it’s some sort of privilege to vote” that allows states and presumably themselves to observe it at their convenience. It is NOT a privilege to vote - it's our right to vote!!

Even an overwhelming majority of Congress – which is given the power to enforce the right to vote in no fewer than four different places in the Constitution – cannot protect that right more strongly than the Court feels appropriate for them to do so. So, what would happen if we took the Constitution's text on this matter seriously, i.e., voting is merely a privilege and not much else?

Okay, stay close to me on this story for you to consider about the instructions given by a home owner to his house-sitter as he prepares to travel abroad to make the point:  “Don't let the dog out at night. Don't feed the dog dry food.” The homeowner returned six weeks later and found his dog dead of starvation.  The dog owner interrogates the house sitter about not following two simple instructions.

The house-sitter, in turn, explains his view this way: “You never said there actually was a dog, or that if there was one I should feed it, just that I shouldn't let it out, or feed it dry food. I did neither of those two things.”

So, does that explanation satisfy the dog owner? Hardly. Now the analogy to voting rights and the lackadaisical Court view about voting rights simply being a "privilege."  Note: many of our most cherished rights are guaranteed but written in the same kind of language that homeowner used to the house sitter.

Take for example, the First Amendment: It does not say (as most people believe): “that … everyone has freedom of speech and of religion.” That is not the language. The first amendment clearly prohibits “Congress from making laws infringing on religious freedom and our freedom of speech.”  But you would not say that it does not guarantee free speech and religion.

What about the right to vote? The phrase appears for the first time in the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that states shall lose congressional representation “… when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime.”

But whatever that section of the Fourteenth Amendment means, it really can't mean that everyone must be allowed to vote. It merely penalizes states that withhold the ballot but does not require them to grant it. (Mumbo jumbo, right? Right).

The Fifteenth Amendment, however, does speak specifically of “the right of citizens of the United States to vote.” That right appears a total of three more times, each time now protected against “…abridgment, as an individual right of citizens, one that can be enforced by both courts and Congress.”

Yet courts and citizens remain oddly ambivalent about that. It is common to regard voting as a “privilege, or an incident of citizenship granted to some but not all.”

Ding, false. That “privilege” over the years has been made dependent on such roadblocks as:  (1) literacy test; (2) long residency in the community; (3) ability to prove ones identity; or (4) proving lack of a criminal past.

None of these conditions would be allowed to restrict free speech, or freedom from unreasonable searches or seizures, or the right to counsel. Each one of those rights is mentioned once in the Constitution.

The right to vote of citizens of the United States remains a kind of stepchild in the family of American rights, perhaps because it is not listed in the Bill of Rights, or perhaps because many Americans still retain the Framers' ambivalence about democracy.

In the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote is not to be “denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (Note the second verb. Abridge). Many things might “abridge” a right without “denying it altogether.”  Whatever the status of the right as a right, it is apparently quite strictly protected from any kind of limit – any of limit, that is, based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The target about that is perfectly clear: racial restrictions on voting, or restrictions of the voting rights of former slaves. It is commonplace, thus, to describe the amendment as aimed solely at racial restrictions on the right to vote.

But that description slights part of the text. The Fifteenth amendment mentions “race and color,” but those aren't the only grounds of discrimination it forbids. It also uses the word “servitude,” which echoes the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition not only of slavery but of “involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” (i.e., put in jail after duly conducted trial).

The choice of the word “servitude” interacts intriguingly with the text of the Thirteenth Amendment, and that is, that “slavery is prohibited, as is involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime.”  

That language certainly foresaw that in the future, convicts might be put to hard labor, as indeed they were. But that kind of “servitude” is not mentioned in the Fifteenth Amendment. That omission suggests that conviction of crime in and of itself would not be an acceptable reason for restricting “the right to vote” since even convicted criminals must be afforded the right in its fullest extent according to law.

In Section Two of the 15th Amendment, as in Section Two of the 13th Amendment, and Section Five of the 14th Amendment, Congress is again given the power to enforce the amendment “by appropriate legislation.” The Supreme Court has taken as narrow a view of that power as it has before. It is has written of the right to vote in scare quotes such as “the right” to vote, as if it were somehow questionable or inferior to other rights all described above.

In light of the Constitution's actual language, those readings about voting rights seem as strained as the house-sitter's argument that an owner's instructions permitted or allowed him to starve the dog to death.

My Blogger Note: This posting was taken almost verbatim (swiped from) from the book American Epic: Reading the Constitution referenced in the Atlantic article. I did edit and re-edited it to fit this Blog. I hope no one considers that plagiarism – that surely was not my intent. That is why I cited the book link. I also provided at least one link that the article did not. Too many excuses, I suspect, but as I said, I never intended to do any harm or discredit or disrespect to the article on this topic – a topic I consider the most-important of any issue facing the country. That is our right to vote and be free and easy to pick and choose the kind of government we the people want and not what narrow special interest groups flush with tons of money from a handful of billionaires bent on buying and owning the country tell us what they want for us. — dmf

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