Voting Rights, Responsibilities (Part 1) – Commentary by Steve Scroggins, 2/08/2010

 "Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual — or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country." –Samuel Adams

Voting Rights is a potentially deep subject, one with many tangents and related issues. Therefore, I will limit this discussion (Part 1 and Part 2) to a few key points: Key American principles, what the Constitution says (and doesn’t say), and what the Framers believed.

One of the key qualifying principles identified by Hamilton Abert Long, author of The American Ideal of 1776: The Twelve Basic American Principles, is the marriage between citizen Rights and Responsibilities. Liberty is inseparable from Responsibility; and Rights are inseparable from Duties. The first paragraph of Long’s "Prefatory Note" to his Twelve Principles is as follows:

"It is basic that all statements made in the following pages about Man’s rights–his liberties or freedoms–are to be considered as subject to the fact of the existence of the inseparable duty factor of Individual Liberty-Responsibility …. The term Individual Liberty always connotes Liberty-Responsibility because Liberty cannot exist separate and apart from Responsibility, nor Right from Duty."

Paired with the Right to vote comes the Responsibility to be informed on the issues and candidates, and to vote with enlightened self-interest if not for the best interests and common good of one’s locality, state and country. This duty to be informed is critical to the survival of our liberties, such that remain. Samuel Adams implied the duty/responsibility that accompanies the right when he described voting as a "solemn trust" for which the citizen is "accountable to God and his country."

"A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." –James Madison

It’s in the above sense and with a profound understanding of history and human nature that the Framers debated the right of suffrage and WHO would define the qualified electorate (voters). The Framers debated it at length but in the end, the Constitution delegated the task to the States to define who should have voting rights in their jurisdictions. More on the Framers’ debates later (Part 2).

During the military occupation of the South following its failure to win its independence, race relations were soured by military governors who spitefully put illiterate former slaves and white scallawags into positions of power and abuse. They denied former Confederates any citizenship rights including the right to vote or hold office or serve on juries. This spiteful farce accumulated weight as carpetbaggers and their useful idiots looted the South’s wealth and land under color of law and the force of government and it directly led to a counter-movement as the white majority resumed political power as the "Reconstruction" governments were disolved circa 1872-1876.

Eventually Jim Crow laws appeared which sought creative ways to bar blacks from voting (northern states instead passed laws to thwart or discourage the immigration or residence of free blacks in their states). There was a sense of white supremacy (which existed worldwide, not just in the South), I’m sure, and retaliation for the abuses of "Reconstruction," but also there was a sense that voters should be able to read and understand the issues of the day.

No discussion of this subject is complete without mention of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its numerous extensions and appendings over the years. We note that it’s only the Southern states that still labor under the rules that don’t apply to the rest of the country. Georgia cannot modify its voting process or eligibility process without express prior approval from the U.S. Department of Justice and federal courts. US Rep. Westmoreland, Gov. Perdue and others have contended that it’s way past time to "let Georgia out of the penalty box."

Notwithstanding the weirdness of a hockey metaphor from a Georgian, it is unfair, unconstitutional and arbitrary to hold southern states to a higher standard (federal oversight) without evidence that those states are violating Constitutional U.S. law. In essence, Georgia and other southern states are still under Reconstruction style political occupation, and still don’t have the rights other states have. This second-class statehood is a discussion for another time.

Let me be clear. It was and IS wrong to deny the vote to anyone based on their race or gender. We won’t digress into the error of projecting our modern attitudes on generations past. Women gained the right to vote only with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. That being said, I do NOT believe it’s wrong to insist that voters have and demonstrate some basic understanding of our political system. Again, if citizens want the right to vote, that is, the power to inflict their elective choices on the population as a whole, then –by golly– they should shoulder the Responsibility to be informed. I believe there should be a test, objective as possible, for making that determination.

Liberals who advocate gun controls and licensing for gun ownership are quick to use the public safety analogy with licensing to operate a motor vehicle —despite the clear language of "shall not be infringed" in the Second Amendment. Let’s turn the tables and apply that analogy to voting. Why shouldn’t people be licensed to vote if it’s appropriate for states to license motor vehicle operators? Does anyone suggest that drivers license requirements are discriminatory?

Given the history of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means used to block voting by minorities, not to mention the theatrical controversies over the Voting Rights Act and federal oversight, I’m sure that some minorities and professional guilt-dealers would recoil at my minimum awareness suggestion or the idea of voters licenses. Tough toenails!

It’s not about race; it is about the citizen’s duty to be informed. If you’re too ignorant to pass a simple (really simple) civics test, then you’re not entitled to inflict your ignorant opinions on your fellow citizens by electing demagogues and conmen.

This statement below is by an unknown author, but it’s making the rounds by email:

Confederacy of Fools

The danger to America is not Barack Obama but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with our presidency. It will be easier to limit and undo the follies of an Obama presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president.

The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Obama, who is a mere symptom of what ails us. Blaming the chief fool should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their leader in the first place.

Our Republic can survive a Barack Obama, who is after all, merely a fool. But our Republic is less likely to survive a multitude of fools such as those who voted him their president.

Whether or not Obama is a fool, or something more sinister, or a tool of puppetmasters behind a curtain, is open to debate. But the central thrust of the statement above remains valid. We have too many ignorant people voting —OK, fools in many cases!. That is an undeniable fact.

As National Review editor Jonah Goldberg pointed out in his April 2007 commentary entitled The Will of the Uninformed, the numbers of many polls reveal a terrifying ignorance within the electorate. These numbers (consistent over many years) should send chills down your spine; it does for me.

 "In 1987, 45 percent of adult respondents to one survey answered that the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needsâ€Â was in the Constitution (in fact, it’s a quote from Karl Marx). Then, in 1991, an American Bar Association study reported that a third of Americans did not know what the Bill of Rights was." —Jonah Goldberg, 4/25/07

Anyone who cannot identify (name) the vice-president or the Speaker of the House or their U.S. Senators or their Governor for their state has no business voting. Period. I don’t see any wiggle room for debate. White, brown, red or yellow doesn’t enter it either. The Right to vote comes with the Duty to be informed. The right and duty are inseparable. There is no free lunch. That’s how it is.

The big complaint we hear over and over in the mass media for non-presidential elections is that our participation levels are too low, only 20-25 percent of registered voters (or less!) are bothering to turnout and vote. My response is…"Wrong! We probably have too many ignorants voting!"

November 2008 proves that without question and other examples abound. After all the scandals and abuse of power by the first Clinton Administration, and the so-called ‘revolution’ of ’94 and "Contract with America," I didn’t believe that the American people would re-elect him in 1996. How wrong I was! They’d rather have a scandalous, crooked perjuror than someone boring like Bob Dole. Between ’94 and ’96, Clinton spouted more right-wing rhetoric than Rush Limbaugh, and by comparison, Dole was rather boring. Dole apparently didn’t answer the "boxers or briefs?" question correctly and he didn’t go on the Arsenio show to play the sax or smoke weed without inhaling.

In retrospect, perhaps it was a wise decision (made for the wrong reasons) to keep Clinton in ’96 since the Congress went Republican in ’94. Gridlock in D.C. is a beautiful thing. We can only wish that 2010’s elections will give us two solid years of gridlock —braking hard! But back to our subject.

Clinton and his liberal posse were instrumental in pushing various "Motor-Voter" schemes in the states to register anyone with a pulse who could stagger into a drivers license bureau or a public assistance office or post office. These schemes raised the totals of registered voters, and obviously skewed the percentages of participation. "Active voter" totals remained fairly constant. Many of those signed up at public assistance offices don’t make time to vote in most cases — unless it’s a national election where the choice is for more or less public largesse—-that is, direct impact on their wallets.

What we need is a minimum awareness test for voter registration. It should be re-taken every four to five years (like a driver’s eye test). It should be short and simple with each test being a random selection of say, ten questions, from a pool of 25 or 30 questions that each and every citizen has a duty to know. Name the three branches of the U.S. Government. Name the current Vice-President. Speaker of the House. Governor of your state. Name the two U.S. Senators from your state. Name your Rep in the U.S. House. Name the Bill of Rights Amendment number that guarantees:

    * 1. The right to free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion
    * 2. The individual right to keep and bear arms
    * 3. The right not to be compelled to incriminate oneself in a criminal trial
    * 4. That all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to the States are reserved to the states or to the people.

You get the idea. Those who want more participation in voting would be obligated to pass out cheat-sheets to their prospective voters, "learn this or you can’t get registered." Sorry, Jose, you have to do this in English. If you can’t read English, enroll in free adult literacy classes.

We require legal immigrants who seek citizenship to demonstrate a minimum amount of civics knowledge. It should be a requirement of all citizens to document in some minimum fashion that they possess a minimum knowledge…BEFORE they can vote.

Equally important, we should have candidates for public office meet constitutional awareness standards, too. Recently in his SOTU address, President Obama suggested that our Constitution contains "the notion that we’re all created equal." Sorry, Mr. Prez, that notion was NOT in the Constitution; rather it was in the Declaration of Independence (third paragraph, first sentence).

It’s clear to me that all public officials who take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States should prove they’ve actually read it and understand the key concepts. Take a test. Can you imagine how different D.C. might operate if everyone there really understood the Constitution? Is it too much to ask to have people seeking high office to prove their knowledge of the instrument they must swear to uphold? Given the demonstrated widespread contempt shown for the Constitution in D.C., we can only conclude that most law school graduates don’t retain much from their constitutional courses.

The Voting Rights act was mentioned earlier as an obstacle to any sensible voting process changes Georgia might seek to make. In 2006, State Senator Cecil Staton (R, Macon) sponsored a bill (SB 84) which sought to require identification (in specific forms) in order to vote. This sounded sensible to most folks. The liberal voices squealed in unison suggesting that the measure was intended to disenfranchise the poor and minorities. Even the New York Times opined that Georgia’s actions prove the need for extending the Voting Rights Act (federal oversight). The poor cannot afford a FREE ID card issued by the State or county? The whole dramatic farce was ridiculous. But if they fought that tenaciously to prevent the reasonable idea of validating identification for voters and the citizenship of voters, can you imagine the fuss they would raise against a minimum civics knowledge test?

About five years ago news stories reported that the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world. One in 37 adults is or has been in prison. If then current trends continued, it meant that a black male in the United States would have about a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during his lifetime. For a Hispanic male, it’s 1 in 6; for a white male, 1 in 17. These people, by their own criminal acts are often disenfranchising themselves given that most states prohibit or limit voting by felons.

And that, in turn, will lead to demagogues calling for an end to the bars against felon voting. Our own resident race hustler, Tyrone Brooks, of Atlanta, has already openly advocated to restore voting rights for felons. His proposals gained no traction in the Georgia General Assembly, but rest assured that he’ll relentlessly pursue it. You will hear calls for felon voting rights in the future. Count on it. They will argue the disproportionate conviction rate in Georgia is a result of "obvious" racial bias, just another racist plot to disenfranchise the black man.

Likewise, I’m sure there will be resistance to the idea of citizen recalls for elected nimrods. John Armor, in his commentary entitled The Right to Recall the Rascals (US Senators), makes the argument that States do have the right to set their own electoral processes. If we can’t prevent (prevention is always better than cure) fools from electing fools to high office, we can at least correct the mistake after the fact. Just as we can count on Congress to resist any movements to cut their pay or benefits, we can count on them to resist (overtly and covertly) any proposals that will empower the people to more easily recall and remove them from office.

Armor is right, the Constitution did delegate election processes (not candidate qualifications) to the States. In Part 2, we’ll review what the Framers thought about voting rights, and what the Constitution actually says about it.

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