7 December 2007

Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?

On a recent radio show, the host posed the question of voting rights and decried the notion of one person, one vote. He is bothered that his informed vote is easily nullified by an "idiot vote".

In America, our system is simple: every citizen over 18 can vote as long as he isn’t a criminal or insane (generally). But these rules seem much more like a practical system than a theoretically coherent system. Should illiterate people vote? They haven’t read the Constitution. Should people who don’t pay taxes vote? They don’t suffer the consequences of their decisions. Should women vote? They can’t be drafted. Should the elderly vote? They have wisdom, but they won’t have to live with the consequences very long. Should children vote? They certainly have the most to lose by bad decisions. We require all sorts of tests before we let someone drive a car, but any old idiot can influence all of our lives by voting. So lets pretend that we are setting up a new system for voting…what would that system require of someone, if anything, before voting?

Yes, Mr. Tallman, you are being an elitist and you erroneously equate the rule of kings with we the people. What made America great in the evolution of government was emphasis on “we the people”, a product of the Enlightenment, that people had rights, unlike the previous ages of world history where no such social contract ever was in existence, at least on a scale as grand as America.

“We the people” means we are the government and the government is us. The host brands government as sanctioned “steal, kidnap, and kill” but that assertion is not apt for our form of government. Is it a fitting moniker for monarchies or dictatorships, but not a model of representative government. How can one “steal or kidnap” ourselves? I left “kill” out, because a nation does go to war, but unfortunately, our history is stained by those occurrences where America was led to war not by democratic sway, but by principle of unitary executive, in flagrant violation of our constitutional charter.

Addressing some of the list points made in favor of voter suppression:

Illiterate people?

On the surface, the notion of banning the illiterate seems sensible. But at the other end, does that mean a voracious reader like me that consumes dozens of books a week is inherently more qualified than someone who primarily gains their knowledge from watching CNN or Fox News? Of course not. And going forth, our culture is transitioning from a written word culture to a visual culture. It’s been established that we’re not exactly a people that like to read:

58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school. 42% of college graduates never read another book. 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year. 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. 57% of new books are not read to completion.

How about “computer illiterate” people? Are they also acknowledged as lesser informed, and thus mete out their vote in unqualified fashion? Our society is one now where one is required to grasp technology to function in it, at least in terms of holding down a job. And increasingly, with media ownership consolidation, the internet (or possibly your public library) is the only resource where you can get more than one side of a story. Or be able to explore all the facets of an issue, not just the strawman hoisted by clever propagandists.

Elderly Vote?

The assumption that the elderly “won’t have to live with the consequences” is flawed — elderly are not only endowed with greater wisdom, but their voting is motivated to see a better world for their children and their children’s children. Though issuing a universal edict on the matter is not a sensible proposition, I would gauge that older, wiser citizens possess a much more forward looking perspective, as opposed to younger people, whose focus is often solely confined to immediacy and interests in their own selfish sphere.

As an aside, the host’s attacks on social security are completely without merit. Social security was established to keep the elderly from dying in the streets, and measured on that criteria, it’s been a success that serves people of all ages. Folks of his political persuasion continue to attack the doings of the New Deal, despite the historical truth that those measures created the middle class in America.

People who don’t pay taxes?

Even people who don’t pay taxes are affected by policies and legislation. I would venture that workers who pay very little in taxes are the foundation of society — they do the work and provide for the riches that do flow to the financially powered. Others like students enrolled in study of a scientific discipline or profession represent the nation's investment to ensure its future prospects are rosier than previous times, and thus, are principle players of equal or greater value than many other tax payers.

Citizenship Tests?

The host defended his ideal system has discriminatory against “dumb people” and not in the spirit of Jim Crow. But there is much hubris in this notion — simple “citizenship tests” are naive and simplistic, and that retaining overly simplistic historical tidbits, taken outside of historical context, grant no meaningful benefit by themselves. Sure, a citizen should be versed in the composition, structure and process of government, but I’m not so certain that a “citizenship test” can effectively serve proof. It’s far more likely that such measures would enable those striving to disenfranchise those of lesser means. Even today, there are still atrocious accounts of voter suppression and campaigns to nullify blocks of voters.


The present mark, 18, is suitable, and should not be raised or lowered — as it would be a travesty (and was prior to a constitutional amendment) to be able to fight and die for your country, but be denied suffrage. Granted, there may be small set of younger folks who should be allotted suffrage, but I don’t see how that group could be properly delineated with “citizenship tests” or other criteria.

On another thread spun by the host, why should extra votes or increased weight be given to married families or larger families? In fact, if such a system were to be implemented, the reverse should apply — that extra resources that all have to pay for (education, security, increased resource consumption) are incurred by “we the people”.

Poll taxes

The idea that citizens should pay to vote or be given extra weight according to their wealth is a crass, gross concept.

In looking at our system, the points at which money is given extraordinary weigh, are the flaws in need of correction. Senators were appointed by state legislatures but this practice became so corrupt a constitutional amendment was passed to stop financial overlords from swallowing the legislative process whole. Absolutely, the founding fathers framework divided the parts of government for the sake of checks and balances, but the legislative branch was envisioned to be the will of the people and the Senate/House split setup for the internal check within the legislative body. Via state legislatures, this was a still part of democratic construct — with the U.S. rise to global powerhouse, the institutions served the money men, not “we the people”.

Defense of the current system

It means we get the government we deserve. Aristocracy is not superior to democracy, and the real life stage of world history is illustrative of this truth. Aristocracy is the enemy of “we the people” — it subverts justice to the interests of the rulers, denies opportunity except to patrons of them in power, and regresses culture and society. All through history, aristocrats have drained the fountain of progress, it’s been only since the social contract implicit in our Constitution that political and economical freedom became a reality for a majority of the nation’s people.

Another system?

I must confess that the citizenship model in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is appealing to me, though Heinlien’s model is criticized for its militarism. In the fictional Starship Troopers world, citizenship was earned by volunteering for service and could only be exercised after honorable discharge from such service. Others had rights including freedom of speech but only those who serve get a say in governance. It strikes me as a just system when only those who have made the sacrifice of service to their country should be in command of its charter.

Such a system, however, would require we totally discard the current constitution and begin anew. Yes, this a theoretical discussion — but the successful application of the U.S. Constitution is a solid practical argument against such a radical change. It’s not free of deficiencies, though, and going forth, maybe our framework will prove to be unsuitable for the 21st century and beyond.

Tinkering with the present system

One of the great things about our system is that is has been tinkered with, and improved through generations of Americans. Contrary to the wishes of “philosopher kings”, most believe that opening the vote up to non-property owners, women, non-white people, etc.… is a most beneficial and just course.

  1. An informed and educated citizenry — democracy requires an informed and educated citizenry to operate property. Literacy means nothing if the media channels are completely controlled by corporate interests who fill them nothing with propaganda. Recently, the internet has evolved as a great equalizer, offering a marketplace of knowledge and ideas not being served by traditional media entities. Hence, issues like consolidation of media ownership and net neutrality must be cornerstones of real democratic reform. This is so essential to proper government that the media industry is the only explicitly specified in the Constitution. And even early on, the press was heavily subsidized, through the establishment of the Post Office and other means, to nourish and promote the idea of a “free press”.

    I think right now there’s some important scholarship that is coming out, not just myself, Paul Starr at Princeton has a new book out “The Creation of the Media,” which discusses this, too, which really demonstrates that our media system historically, through to the present day, has nothing to do with free markets and magical technologies. It has nothing to do with some biblical command from Moses or the founding fares, but in fact it’s due to a policy making, subsidies, government monopoly franchises that lay the foundation for how our media system will work, who has power, who doesn’t what the logic is going to be. And what’s extraordinary, when you look at the history, is, at the founding period of this republic, there were tremendous media subsidies, press subsidies or printing subsidies and especially postal subsidies, which were used to really spawn a much more diverse, wide open and democratic press then would have existed if we just left it to the market. And the moral of the story, why this is important is, it gives us today as citizens who are dissatisfied of the caliber of journalism we’re getting and dissatisfied with the type of media that we’re getting, the power to know that the system we have today isn’t natural law, but a result of policies. Today though unlike in the first generation of the republic, they’re made extraordinarily corruptly behind closed doors by powerful special interests. But armed with this knowledge, as real citizens in a democracy, we have an obligation, not just a right, but obligation to establish free press.

  2. Instant runoff voting — the two party system in America has a stranglehold on the political process. While I don’t agree with those who claim that there is no significant difference in the parties, there indeed is a relevant set of issues where both parties stand in unison as the “Washington party”, and completely in opposition to the interests of the American people. The implementation of instant runoff voting would be a healthy tonic, and do a great part in breaking the two party monopoly on the political process. Voters could then vote their conscience without any qualms about unwittingly serving a underhanded vote to a lesser preferred candidate in the two party system.

  3. Disproportionate weight given to rural populations — 10% of the American population easily trumps the other 90% in the Senate,by virtue of the unbalanced nature of state populations, ensuring that this body is quite paralyzed in its constitutional role. The interests of urban workers are drowned but worse, the rural voting block is hijacked by corporate special interests that mainly revolve around funneling government largess into corporate windfalls. At the time of the nation’s founding, such divisions, though present were nowhere near the extreme outliers that exist in today’s geographic alignment.

  4. Corporations citizen status revoked — the notion of corporate citizenship is a gross affront to the sensibilities and vision of America’s founding fathers. It is ironic, because the American rebellion was a strike against the chartered corporate giants of the day, like the British East India Company. Now, in the legal and political realm, corporations are immortal entities, borderless leviathans that easily trump “we the people”. Nothing is sacred — life, justice, sovereignty — all sacrificed on the altar of the almighty dollar.

  5. Gerrymandering — slicing up voting districts not by geographic bounds, but by voter demographics and tendencies needs to end.

I reject the fatalist view that “we the people” are flawed — in fact, it represented an evolutionary factor in the advance of government. One that empowered all of its citizens to realize life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The alternative, which prevailed overwhelmingly, outside of an occasional spark, of rule by aristocrats, was only of benefit to a small cartel of privilege. The majority were confined to filling the coffers of corrupt overlords.

In America, as a result of the Enlightenment and prescient thinkers, that through the ages tyranny was shattered. No, not completely, and still, there are drawbacks and foibles in need of remedy with the system. But one would have to deny historical truth to believe we have been ill served by "we the people".


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