The right to vote

Our constitution begins with “We the people.” Abraham Lincoln ended his famous Gettysburg Address with the prayer that our nation “of the people, by the people and for the people should never perish from the earth.” Our freedom and our democratic form of government is dependent on participation by the people. In the presidential election of 2008 only 56.8 percent of qualified voters went to the polls. That number was higher than any national election since the presidential election of 1968 when 60.8 percent of voters cast ballots.

There are many reasons not to vote. Some citizens feel like their vote doesn’t matter. If one supports the Green Party or a Libertarian Party candidate, one might feel like his or her vote is inconsequential. Sometimes third party supporters are accused of wasting votes on a dead horse and hurting another candidate’s chances.

Some voters are political cynics and think that all politicians are crooks and to vote for anyone is a betrayal of the American Dream.

Some people don’t feel like they are well enough informed to make a decision. Others don’t know how or where to vote.

From the beginning of our democracy we have had a history of making it difficult or impossible for some of the citizens of this great nation to be part of elections. Originally, one had to be white, male, and own property to have the right to a ballot. Some states had religious limitations.  Even after people of other races were given the right to vote, some states levied poll taxes and required voters to pass literacy tests. Women were not allowed to vote until 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment and Native Americans were made citizens and guaranteed the right to vote in 1924. In 1970 the Supreme Court banned literacy tests and declared lengthy residency requirements unconstitutional in 1972.  We have laws that make accommodations for people of almost all abilities to vote. We have spent 200 years making voting rights accessible and available to more people.

North Dakota has relatively easy voting eligibility laws. Residency requirements in a precinct is 30 days. No voter registration is required. Poll officials must ask for identification before giving you a ballot. (This seems silly when the election judge is someone who knew my parents and has known me since childhood.) If, however, you do not have a current identification card of sort like a driver’s license or a passport and a proof of residency such as a utility bill, you can still vote. If the poll worker has known you since childhood or even more recently, she can vouch for your eligibility and give you a ballot. If the election official does not know you, you may vote as a challenged voter by executing an affidavit stating that you are a legally qualified elector of the precinct.

Now it seems, in many places, we are headed backwards. State legislatures across the nation have either introduced or passed legislation that again attempts to make voting more difficult rather than easier. The supposed reason for the more restrictive voter identification laws being proposed is to combat voter fraud. Voter fraud should not be confused with election or ballot fraud. Voter fraud refers to things like voters casting more than one vote, voting in a precinct where they don’t live or voting under another name. Many studies have shown that voter fraud is almost nonexistent. One study maintains that proven voter fraud amounts to less than 0.0009 percent of all votes cast. You are more likely to be struck by lightening. Such a tiny percentage of fraud would be even less likely than a lightening strike to have an impact on the results of any election. The real intent of the laws seems, again, to make voting more difficult. The courts in some instances have ruled that those being disenfranchised by the more stringent rules are the poor, old people, young people and people of color.

When only about half of voters exercise their right to vote, why would we, under the guise of solving a nonexistent problem of voter fraud, try to make it more difficult for people to participate in our democratic processes? We should ask who benefits from the stricter rules and who is hurt by them. Who is introducing the laws? What do they have to gain?

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains