The March 26 “Local View” column, “In any individual's world, few would be allowed to vote,” missed the point in disagreeing with an unnamed U.S. representative who said, “Everybody shouldn't be voting.” With undoubted irony, the column cited many classes of people the writer imagined disenfranchising.
However, all of his disqualifications were for political viewpoints or free speech with which the writer, a retired Duluth pastor and regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page, disagrees. And they all were targeting the right of the political spectrum.
The only time anything resembling this occurred was during the so-called Reconstruction Era when many white citizens of the South were forbidden from voting while recently emancipated illiterate slaves were allowed and even encouraged to do so. This followed elections — even in border states such as Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky — where prospective voters could be challenged for supposed Southern sympathy, something of which the column writer might approve.
At the time of the Constitution's writing, elections were solely a state concern, with qualifications determined quite independently. The vote was largely limited to white men and/or property holders resident in their districts for varying lengths of time. The intent was to allow for an informed electorate composed of persons of both assumed knowledge of public affairs and of economic substance. The thought of a universal electorate at that time would have been unthinkable.
As times changed, of course, states changed their qualifications. The largest change came with Reconstruction-Era amendments 14 and 15, which asserted a new role for the federal government in citizenship and suffrage, forbidding states to exclude voters on the basis of race.
Note that, despite demands from women, many of whom had been active in the abolition movement, extending the suffrage to women was not included. Nor was the franchise extended to Native Americans until much later.
The very necessity of these amendments showed that, prior to this, the Constitution left the matter of qualifications completely to the states.
Now a new doctrine has become predominant in which voting is no longer in any sense a privilege but is now an inherent right for all persons. Some would even include prisoners, non-citizens, and resident aliens. In addition, states could not require any method of identification or residency to qualify. Essentially, elections would be totally federalized without any voice for individual states.
The column’s suggestion that “compassion and empathy” would be the only requirement sounded more appropriate for a church than a secular government. As former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once suggested, socialism is fine until you run out of other people's money.
How often does anyone have to present identification for many common situations in ordinary life? Often, to get a prescription, seek medical treatments, apply for a passport, get a driver's license, file a tax return, register for higher education, and in many other incidents, identification is requested. Is it unreasonable to ask for identification before voting?
In today's world, the merest lip service is paid to the idea of an informed electorate and doubtless that is in part what the U.S. representative quoted in the column was suggesting. The idea is essentially moot in today's political climate, where this would be perceived as undemocratic and elitist. It is nevertheless the fact that as newspapers lose readers to online blogs and the 24-hour media, people are less well-informed than previous generations of voters.
We already have not only the 15th, 19th, and 24th amendments but the Voting Rights Act and related legislation which bar discrimination of various kinds. Is anything more truly needed?
It would appear that partisanship lies behind both attempts to restrict and to loosen voting requirements. That is politics. We vote as citizens of states, and with the states should reside the power to reasonably regulate that process. That has how it has been historically and how it should remain.
J. Craig Scherf of Duluth researches and writes regularly for the publications of historical societies.