On September 17, 1787, the last of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. Thanks to the dedication of a woman named Louise Leigh, a law was passed on December 8, 2004 (public law 108-447) designating every September 17 as Constitution Day. Constitution Day is dedicated to the study and awareness of this remarkable document that guides our nation. All schools receiving federal funds and all federal agencies are required to provide material and educate students about the Constitution.
To honor this year's celebration of Constitution Day, please enjoy this timely essay about the right to vote.
Happy Constitution Day, America!
Is it Your Right to Vote?
With the 2020 U.S. presidential election just a little more than a year away, campaigning is in full swing, and all eyes are on the candidates vying for that desk in the Oval Office. As the contenders take to the town halls, debates, and social media to voice their platforms and agendas, America is watching to see who will be the next president of the United States. Of course, getting citizens to share in that excitement has been an ongoing – and challenging – effort, with non-profits like Rock the Vote encouraging people to get to the booths for the last 29 years.
These efforts to encourage voting stem from the notion that it is a right of every citizen to vote. After all, this right is clearly stated in the U.S. Constitution. Or is it? The fact is, the answer is more complex than you may think.
On one hand, some scholars argue that the Constitution is more about preserving rights than proclaiming them, and therefore the right to vote is a given (Epps, 2012). On the other hand, some assert that the Constitution is missing an amendment that guarantees a Constitutional right to vote. Without this amendment, our voting rights are threatened (Soros & Schmitt, 2013). Take a look at the arguments below, and make your own decision. Just remember, voting requires personal action on your part. Voting is critical in making democracy work from the federal to local levels of government, and only by making democracy work can we uphold our Constitution and all the civil rights and liberties that it protects and proclaims.
In simplest terms, there is no verbiage in the Constitution that specifically states “all U.S. citizens have a right to vote.” However, the Constitution does allow states to determine qualifications to vote in House and Senate elections. The Constitution also has been amended to state: “But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State” (U.S. Constitution, 1868, Amendment XIV).
Race, color, and slavery also were eliminated as conditions that restrict voting as stated in Section 1: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” (U.S. Constitution, 1870, Amendment XV).
In 1920, women also were included: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” (U.S. Constitution, 1920, Amendment XIX).
Poll taxes and other voting restrictions were eliminated in 1964: “Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” (U.S. Constitution, 1964, Amendment XXIV).
Also, in 1971, 18-year-old citizens were given the right to vote: "Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” (U.S. Constitution, 1971, Amendment XXVI). So it is clear there is not one statement affirming the right to vote.
With all this in mind, the question then becomes, is it necessary that the Constitution specifically state that all citizens have a right to vote? An argument against this begins “…. if the Constitution has to say "here is a specific right and we now guarantee that right to every person," there are almost no rights in the Constitution. Linguistically, our Constitution is more in the rights-preserving than in the rights-proclaiming business. The First Amendment doesn't say "every person has the right to free speech and free exercise of religion." In the Second, the right to "keep and bear arms" isn't defined, but rather shall not be "abridged." In the Fourth, "[t]he right of the people to be secure ... against unreasonable searches and seizures" isn't defined, but instead "shall not be violated." In the Seventh, "the right of (civil) trial by jury" -- whatever that is -- "shall be preserved." And so on” (Epps, 2012, para. 8). This argument clearly contends that most rights are self-evident and are preserved and protected by the Constitution, not proclaimed or stated.
There is no doubt that the lack of clear statements in the Constitution declaring a fundamental right to vote has and continues to create problems with elections and voting throughout our country. “Just as the Constitution once countenanced slavery, it also allowed voting to be restricted to property-holding white men. The Thirteenth Amendment expunged the stain of slavery from our basic law, but the Constitution has never fulfilled the democratic promise we associate with it. Put simply—and this is surprising to many people—there is no constitutional guarantee of the right to vote. Qualifications to vote in House and Senate elections are decided by each state, and the Supreme Court affirmed in Bush v. Gore that “[t]he individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.” This argument expands to declare that: “The result has been a steady descent into chaos and confusion that threatens the integrity of our institutions at home and our credibility in promoting democratic governance abroad” (Soros & Schmitt, 2013, para. 1 and 3).
Consequently, for most of our history, the right to vote has been expanded and at times contracted. Recently, the right to vote has become a very partisan issue again and a source of intensifying political conflict (Hasen, 2012). The conflict has become an argument between those who worry about voter fraud and those who worry about voter disenfranchisement and excessive restrictions. Regardless of which argument you find most persuasive, how can you personally assure you can vote?
Learn what the voting laws are in your state, county, and city. Prepare before each election to meet those laws and ensure you have proper registration and identification if needed before you go to vote. If you have trouble with any of these processes, seek help. Many counties have voter registration, early voting, and on-time voting assistance and some political parties/organizations even provide that assistance. Many civic groups in your local area can help you register and get to a polling place when it is time to vote.
The most important take-away from this discussion is that voting is very important for our country, our form of government, and it is equally important that each citizen that can vote does at every opportunity. Don’t forget to vote on November 3, 2020!
Dr. Jean Gabriel Jolivet
Chair, Political Science, College of Liberal Arts
The University of Arizona Global Campus
Dr. John Ackerman
Associate Professor, College of Liberal Arts
The University of Arizona Global Campus
Edited by Erin Ansley, content specialist, Zovio
published September 2019
Epps, G. (2012, September 18). Voting: Right or privilege? The Constitution mentions "the right to vote" five times. Judges, and voter ID law proponents, don't seem to be getting the hint. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/09/voting-right-or-privilege/262511/
Hasen, R. L. (2012). Voting wars from Florida 2000 to the next election meltdown. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. Soros, J., & Schmitt, M. (2013). The missing right: A constitutional right to vote. Democracy Journal, Spring (28). Retrieved from http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/28/the-missing-right-a-constitutional-right-to-vote/