Archive for May, 2013

Here in the United States, we point with pride to our Constitution as one of the most remarkable charters of government in the history of humanity. Indeed, the Framers devised an ingenious system of self-government that incorporates democratic ideals into a republican structure, guaranteeing the rights of the minority while simultaneously guaranteeing the rights of all from the appetite of a voracious government.

The Framers’ Fear of the People

The Framers, though, feared the ability of demagogues to sway public opinion to radical points of view. For that reason, the only popular election provided in the Constitution was for US Representatives, and that right was extended to those who were granted the right, by their States, to vote for the lower house of the state’s legislature. Senators were to be appointed by the States’ legislatures, and the President was to be selected by the Electoral College, in which each State was represented by a number of electors, selected as the Legislature saw fit, equal to its total of US Representatives and Senators.

Thus, not only didn’t the Constitution originally establish the popular election of the President, it doesn’t even require citizen participation in the selection of the Electors! Furthermore, the Constitution never requires states to extend the right to vote to all adults over age 18, as is popularly assumed. Instead, it limits the States’ ability to restrict the vote. Let’s look at how the Constitution treats this most cherished of our rights:

Popular Election of Members of Congress

Article 1 of the US Constitution establishes that US Representatives are elected by the people, and establishes that anyone qualified to vote for members of a State’s larger legislative body, usually called the Assembly, can vote for members of the US House. It doesn’t set forth the requirements of electors, though – it leaves that to the states.

The election of Senators, also established by Article 1, but modified by the 17th Amendment, is identical, although the Constitutional history is more complex. Originally, the selection of Senators was specifically the responsibility of each State legislature, but vacancies became common and some states went without full representation in the Senate for years at a time. The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, provided for the popular election of Senators, and also provided that the qualifications of electors for Senator be identical to those for electors of US Representatives – that is, anyone permitted by the State to vote for a member of the Assembly could vote for US Senator.

Indirect Election of the President

The Constitution leaves it to each State to determine how its members of the Electoral College are chosen. No right is established for citizens to vote for Electors, though: those rights are granted by the States. In the very first Presidential election, in 1789, only two States – Maryland and Pennsylvania – had instituted direct election of Presidential electors; the Electors from the other States were selected by their legislatures. By 1824, most states had established some form of direct vote for Electors, with only 6 legislatures still appointing Presidential Electors. South Carolina continued to appoint its Presidential electors until it seceded from the Union in 1860; of the other states, Delaware was the last to switch from legislative appointment of Electors to direct election, in 1832.

Constitutional Amendments Affecting Voting Rights

While the original Constitution refers to voting rights only three times, the Amendment process clarifies them six times, in each case recognizing that although the national government could set broad limitations on what restrictions the States could impose on voting rights, the States still had the final word.

The 14th Amendment was the first to affect voting rights, by extending citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the US, and requiring that due process of law be observed when depriving any citizen of the rights and privileges of citizenship, like voting. The 14th Amendment went on to acknowledge that states can deprive adult males of the right to vote, but promised to reduce the representation in the US House of any State that did so.

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, clarified voting rights further, prohibiting States from limiting the right to vote by virtue of “. . . race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Thus, while States could restrict the right to vote, they couldn’t do so on those grounds. Fifty years later, the 19th Amendment prohibited the States from denying the vote to women. Note that by this time, about half the States had already extended full or partial voting rights to women, further reinforcing the idea that voting rights are determined by the states, subject only to the constraints of the US Constitution.

Voting rights were further addressed by the Constitution in the 23rd, 24th and 26th Amendments. The first gave three Electoral College votes to the District of Columbia, but gave the Congress, as the District’s governing authority, the responsibility for determining who could vote for those electors. The 24th Amendment, again recognizing that the states held the authority to determine their own electorates within Constitutional guidelines, banned the use of taxpayer status to prevent poor people (mostly black) from voting in elections for members of Congress, or for electors for President and Vice President. The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, reduced the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. Again, though, it did so not by extending the right to vote, but by limiting the States’ ability to restrict the right to vote.

 

There’s really no doubt that the right to vote isn’t granted or guaranteed by the Constitution – even the US Supreme Court confirms it, most recently in Bush v Gore (2000). The fact remains, though, that it’s a de facto right. While this may appear to be a serious problem to some, the fact that the right to vote under State constitutions thrived over the years is testimony that while not guaranteed, the right to vote in the United States is secure.

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I’m thrilled to report that we just returned from a trip to my brother-in-law Tony’s house in Florida. We left Friday a week ago, and returned yesterday, and spent the seven days there visiting, shopping, fishing, and watching a good amount of rain from his lanai room. We went to Florida for a couple of reasons. First, it was about time – we hadn’t been in nearly a year, and we usually find a reason to go down once or twice a year. Tony and his wife Enid are very hospitable, and they built themselves quite a gracious home, with room for houseguests.

The second reason it was actually necessary to visit was that my father-in-law, Mars ‘Ardo, as they call him, is visiting with us for a while. This is a project Joni’s been working on for a while – making certain his passport is up-to-date and monitoring his progress in getting him a visa to visit this country.  She secured his ticket a couple of months ago, and he arrived in Atlanta in early April.

It’s an interesting proposition, hosting an elderly gentleman (he’s 90) with whom you allegedly share a common language. Jamaican people speak a patois whose words are largely English, but whose pronunciation and grammar are based on something else entirely. You might remember the old Steven Segal movie where the Jamaican villain says “Welcome to I island,” and “Everybody want heaven, but nobody want dead.” There are little Jamaican phrasebooks, usually available in airport gift shops and the like, that contain hundreds of such formulations. There’s also a good Wikipedia article about Jamaican patois at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamaican_Patois.

It’s hard to describe the pronunciation of the Jamaican patois. They also speak fairly fast, and the overall effect is to make their speech pretty much unintelligible. I rarely understood anything my late mother-in-law said, except one memorable occasion when I asked her some question and she looked at me with pity, perhaps marveling that an adult might ask such a silly question, and said “Yeah mon.”

Now, despite the fact that Joni’s dad is 90, that’s not really considered old in a family where people generally reach triple digits. True, he takes a bit more time to get around, and he’s somewhat more fragile, but he was well into his eighties before he stopped walking several miles daily to attend to his farm and performing sometimes strenuous farmwork. So anyone describing this visit to see family members in the States as a swan song would be dramatically wrong. We’re already talking about a bunch of the family getting together in a few years in Jamaica to visit him!

When we planned our trip to Florida, the idea was that we’d stay a week, and a few weeks later, Tony and Yvonne would come up to Georgia, bringing dad with them. Yesterday, accordingly, we awoke early and did our packing, and were surprised to see dad packing as well – nobody had told him he’d be staying with his son and daughter-in-law in Florida for a couple more weeks. This is a habit we have in this country that’s pretty demeaning to seniors – we often talk about them and not to them, and we sometimes neglect to include them in planning things that largely are being planned for their benefit. I actually had a nice, albeit short, discussion about this with him before we left Florida, and I made certain to tell him that if I did it – talked about him without talking to him – it was inadvertent.

In a few weeks, we head out west to visit another of Mars ‘Ardo’s children, Joni’s sister. This time, we’ll be certain to have a nice talk, the three of us, about the trip, so that this time he’s not taken by surprise!