There is a phrase I have used many times that is usually met with a shocked expression. It is this: The universal voting franchise was a terrible idea. “You can’t possibly mean that,” is the helpful response from people who evidently know my mind much better than does my mind itself. “That’s elitist!” Well yes, I suppose it is, so what’s your problem? Isn’t everything else we deem as important in (cough) civilized society elitist? We don’t let just anyone perform surgery, fly airplanes, command armies or even play quarterback for NFL teams. Yet, we allow flat-Earthers and birthers, Luddites and strange the exact same voting rights as you and me with all our formal and continuing education. What good is a system where wisdom is watered down in an ocean of ignorance, a system where everyone can vote?
One little problem. My argument is flawed, for not everyone can vote.
The elimination of beer-fueled arguments from my social calendar is just one of the benefits gained from a reading of Dr. Martha E. Kropf’s Institutions and the Right to Vote in America (Palgrave Macmillan). Kropf covers in detail – and when it comes to detail there’s quite a spread to cover – the facts and fallacies, the exceptions and variances, the policies and rationale contained in an American voting process that is as rococo as the Basilica of Ottobeuren.
For instance, how many elections for the US Presidency will be held in 2016? You might say one, unless you’re being clever and say two, thinking of the vote taken by the Electoral College; or perhaps there are three, if the Electoral College cannot reach a majority and the decision is passed along to the House of Representatives.
Wait now, should that number not be 50 or 51, given that each State and the District of Columbia have their own voting systems in place for the Presidency? And, voting rules can vary district by district, so that takes the number to 10,072 local jurisdictions each conducting unique Presidential elections. And if you live in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands or other territories or protectorates, you can vote in a party primary but not in the general election, unless you’re a US citizen, in which case you can. Maybe. Aren’t you glad we cleared that up?
You’d think that the writers of the United States’ Constitution would have included some definition as to who can or cannot vote, except that they didn’t, instead kicking the can down the road and passing the issue off to the States. According to Article 1, Section 4, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing [sic] Senators.” In other words, the Federal Government can get involved – as it did memorably with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – on any State definition or restriction, except those that involve the patronage of drumming up business for good old Charlie’s Grill Room by designating it a polling station. To paraphrase a fine old polka, Roll out the pork barrel, we’ll have a barrel of funds!
What Institutions and the Right to Vote in America does beautifully is link institutional structures to the public policy decisions that created them, as well as the lurking figure of politics that manipulates both. Indeed, Kropf’s closing sentence to her book is, “Politics has mattered since the beginning, and it will continue to matter.” As much as we might like to think that “the voter” is some sort of distinct and separate figure, the driver of a skyborn chariot, more godling than human, the truth of the matter is that all of these constructs – the notion that one has a civic duty to vote, or even the decision to prefer the Australian (secret) ballot over the raising of hands in a public square – all have politics behind them. And politics, leave us not forget, is the means by which power is taken or assigned.
So it is that the great historic liberalizations of voting rights were all accomplished because one already powerful political group or another saw an advantage in them. That includes removing mandatory land ownership (which was largely ignored in most of the early post-Colonial States anyway), women’s suffrage, or the provision of the aforementioned Voting Rights Act whereby any change in voting procedures in what was broadly the Confederacy had to be run past the Department of Justice first. With regards to the latter, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats were no fools; ensuring that blacks had access to the ballot box meant votes for their patrons.
Democracy (or to be more accurate in the case of the US, republicanism) is a messy business. The Founding Fathers were highly suspicious of it; hence the existence of the Electoral College or the House of Representatives as the final deciders of the Presidency. They did not want any single vote to carry too much weight, as indeed it does not. For a true understanding of the American electoral system, you will not find a better source of study than Institutions and the Right to Vote in America. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications. This is the third in a political series he has been writing for January Magazine. The first can be seen here. The second is here.