About a decade ago, I was running a small weekly newspaper in upstate New York’s Wayne County. One day, I ran across an item in the neighboring town’s paper describing some complaints some fine upstanding citizens made at a school board meeting about the annual district budget vote (which had passed).
One of the residents, a woman named Penny Frederick, complained that officials weren’t vigorously checking voter eligibility of what appeared to be “high school students” in front of her.
That seemed a bit discriminatory, and raised my hackles – after all, 18-year-olds can vote, right? She then went on to suggest that voters should need to go through a “qualifying” process, which set me growling audibly in my office.
She then said the following:
"We believe that if school were not in session, there would be next to no students voting. We believe that students were excused from class to vote. What a shame that students who do not pay taxes are encouraged and frightened into voting for more spending."
Let that sink in for a few moments.
It sounds really similar to another rather infamous recent pronouncement, doesn’t it?
At the time, I wrote a furious column; pointing out that A. Ms. Frederick had no evidence that students were intimidated into voting for the budget and B. whatever stance they took was a moot point as 18-year-olds are entitled to the same voting rights as anyone else under the 26th amendment of the Constitution. It’s a close cousin to the 15th and 19th amendments, which set the same parameters for race and gender. And oh yeah, you don’t have to own property or have tax liability to vote -- that’s the 24th amendment, which dispatches with those pesky poll taxes.
(The column appeared in the July 8, 2004 edition of the Wayne County Mail, which is, alas, not online)
One thing that we emphasize in political science is the “rules of the game.” That is, in order to have a stable democratic government, we can disagree on policy, but we need to respect certain parameters: universal suffrage and other civil rights on one hand, and the legitimacy of duly elected office-holders or governments on the other.
It’s arguments like Frederick's that frighten me about the future of democracy in the United States, because they drip with contempt for the rules of the game. They think if you’re young, you’re too stupid to vote. They think if you receive welfare payments or don’t pay income taxes, you have too much of a conflict of interest to vote (Senior citizens who rely on Social Security or CEOs who take advantage of corporate tax breaks always seem to be exempt from this requirement, though). They think if you don’t have a driver’s license, you can’t be trusted to vote. They think if you’re a convicted felon, you don’t deserve to vote. In practice, all of these requirements seem to count double for the poor, for females, and for racial and sexual minorities.
We’ve seen these arguments come to a head over the last five years: the bizarre fixation on our president’s citizenship; the attack on community organizing groups like ACORN; the unprecedented obstruction of routine executive appointments to the cabinet, regulatory agencies and the court system; and the spread of voter disenfranchisement laws.
But as the statements I encountered above show, the sentiment isn’t new. I discovered mild symptoms nine years ago in an upstate New York school budget election. But much more dangerous strains showed up in the hard-right reaction to Clinton’s presidency, the John Birch Society and the Jim Crow southern segregationists, and the pre-Civil War slaveholders, who plunged the country into Civil War rather than give up power to own their fellow human beings.
Fortunately, thus far, we’ve always had just enough citizens and leaders who have pushed back on these claims – radical Republicans during the Civil War, Liberal Democrats during the New Deal and Great Society, socialist labor organizers, populist farm organizers, and activists for any number of important civil rights causes.
Look, I’m a Liberal Democrat (capital letters) because I believe in a set of public policy goals: a well-run government, a clean environment, a fair shake for workers, universal access to quality health care, education, child care and employment, a constructive foreign policy, a fair tax system, and equal protections for all regardless of gender, race or orientation.
But more fundamentally, I’m also a liberal democrat (lower-case letters) because I believe in the rules of the game: the legitimacy of elected leaders and in the legitimacy of all citizens to choose those leaders and take part in the governing process.
Making some people (by which I mean "those people") jump through ridiculous hoops to vote is an affront to the rules of the game.
Participatory democracy is a fragile thing. One of our goals as progressives (and Progressives) is to cherish it by making sure all citizens have the real right to participate in it.
We can do better. We must do better. And that Journey starts on Election Day -- though it most certainly cannot stop there.