The Inalienable Right to Vote?

The real contention over H.R. 1 came months after the House first introduced it, with different organizations across the board speaking out about this “For the People Act.” Needless to say, one reason might be how broad and encompassing the bill is, leading to mixed reactions from those organizations in themselves. Some have seen it more like an electoral platform than anything Congress can actually pass, and that’s proven to be the case. It was assessed as being a signal of the House’s reform interests since it was the first bill introduced this year. It’s been marked as “unnecessary” by some and far too lengthy by others. After all, that’s happened in this first half of 2019, it seems pretty distantly behind us now.

The bill broadly packages together many of the Democratic House’s goals, and that has been its fatal flaw. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared the bill dead-on-arrival in his chamber. Despite its general support for government reform, H.R. 1 has received exclusively Democratic support. It would be difficult to list all of its measures here, but among them are making Election Day a federal holiday, ending gerrymandering through state-based demographing commissions, enacting judicial ethics standards for the Supreme Court, publicly funding elections (at least in part), and requiring presidential and vice presidential candidates to release their tax returns. Not everything about the legislation is as worthwhile as other parts.

One measure targets the money given to non-profits and campaign donations. While I still have questions about the head-butting donors’ right to privacy and voters’ right to know that exists in opening up on so-called “dark money,” even though most people would agree the non-profit routing of the money is fairly fishy, I think there’s considerable good in another section on automatic voter registration. 

It appears the bill’s writer, Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, threw everything against the wall to see what sticks. There’s an argument to be made, however, that there are provisions on which there could be bipartisan support, with the strength to garner liberals, constitutionalists, conservatives, libertarians, and centrists. Even still, it’s fairly clear that the bill was indigestible for legislators, only highlighting the political inefficiency of this signal of good faith for voting rights activists.

Many have argued the universal right to vote is not stated in the Constitution, although we have multiple Amendments that state implicitly in very particular ways how that right to vote shall not be abridged. This has led some to believe we need a Voting Rights Amendment; we do have the 15th, 19th, and 26th which provide for ways in which this right is stated as something implicit but not particularly well-defined in any way other than its negative.

Ultimately, the debate becomes a question of whether or not citizenship equates to voting rights, and for the most part, it appears it largely does. The argument against the proposal is that it’s a power grab, flying in the face of federalism by tackling one of the most decentralized issues in the US.

The bill encompasses more electoral reforms alone than any one article could cover, much less all the rest of its measures. The bill is truly a few dozen smaller bills wrapped into one, giving it an extremely high mortality risk entering the Senate, since the Republican-led branch is not likely to spend time gutting the 706-page document. Some measures are less divisive, such as assistance that the bill would provide to help states switch over to instant-runoff voting systems. The instant-runoff method has seen bipartisan interest within the nation, but maybe other criticism because it weakens the partisan duopoly. Even still, McConnell has accused the bill of stealing the states’ rights to decide voting policy.

Automatic voter registration has been espoused as a measure asking potential voters to opt-out rather than opt-in. This usually comes about through an interaction with a government agency, eliminating steps of the varied state methods of voting. The bill also includes grants to help the states set up with the reform measures. Not only does this benefit those who might have their voting rights hobbled by governments that don’t represent them, but it also fits directly within existing laws. Namely, the 15th Amendment, which follows suit with the others following the Bill of Rights in making specific restrictions on the government. Here, racial discrimination is prohibited, without clearly pronouncing what the right to vote essentially is.

The stronger validation of more universalized voting systems comes with the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the vote, but it reads more as a general definition of the right to vote. 

With regards to individual rights, we often talk about them in the frame of their protection by the government. However, as the “constituents” of the democracy, the right to vote is the ultimate interface of the governed, who provide their consent to be governed within that state. The people constitute the frame of government, and it, therefore, secures their other rights. At what age a person should have the right to vote is an entire conversation in itself. However, since the primary automatic voter registration proposals involve the citizen interacting with a government agency – most likely the DMV – it would follow suit that they would at the same time be provided a voter I.D. to satisfy.

Those who see a basic civics test as necessary in some way echo the words of Socrates, who distrusted the fickle will of the masses and the uneducated voter. The idea that some should be prevented from voting based on a lack of civic education is a reactive measure: rather than keep those with little to no knowledge of politics out, improve civics in this country. More often than not, conservatives tend to view the measure as unnecessary, since registering does not appear to be that difficult. In some ways, registering voters in this way seems unremarkable. Which, on the one hand, could be its strength since there would be a lack of polarization. 

Making Election Day a holiday is also in the bill. If schools were to follow suit with a “Democracy Day” paradigm, releasing students for the day has a potential to instill a sense of tradition and Americanism to the date. By providing the day off for workers, it has the potential to spread feelings of respect for our civic duty. When it comes to election reform, there are far more creative things in consideration by certain political figures: consider Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang’s blockchain-verified voting via phone. And, of course, ranked choice voting will always be applaudable. The question of whether or not the right to vote is inherent recently came up at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ CNN Town Hall, when he voiced support of letting prisoners vote. Dissenters argued it should be restricted just like the many other freedoms prisoners lose.

McConnell has called H.R. 1 a power grab by the federal government, flying in the face of federalism by tackling one of the most decentralized issues in the US. The argument is not uncommon, since voting is one of a few things that tends to remain largely localized, delegated by federalist philosophy. Still, with regards to how votes funnel up to impact the national offices, there is a sensible argument to be made in favor of making the nation’s voting laws more consistent. Not only does it enfranchise more and more citizens, but it also vindicates the democratic form of government by increasing participation, prompting potential engagement from those who might have deferred staying home.

Despite how H.R. 1 has stalled and for the sheer fact it does not appear to have been built for compromise and thus survival, it seems voting rights in this way will have to be addressed in the future. Automatic voter registration may seem simplistic, but it does address major philosophical premises at the foundation of our republic.