We Americans take for granted the fact that, upon our 18th birthday, we become entitled to go to the polls and participate in the selection of those who will fill the seats of power within our government. Yet can these same people who take the right of suffrage for granted find the exact location in the Constitution which grants them that right? (Note: this is a trick question).
Nowhere in the Constitution is your right to vote mentioned…NOWHERE! Nowhere in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is your right to vote mentioned; although it is implied in the 9th Amendment, which states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
The fact of the matter is, that up until immediately after the Civil War, the right of suffrage, or voting, was never even specifically mentioned in either the Constitution, nor in any the amendments to it. Prior to 1870 it was pretty much left up to the States to decide who could, and who could not, vote.
It was not until the ratification of the 15th Amendment that an amendment was passed which removed restrictions upon a certain category of people which had prohibited their being allowed to vote. In 1870, after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, a person could not be denied the right to vote based upon race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
You might find it interesting, particularly those of you who believe the Civil War was a just war fought to free the slaves in the South, that in our nation’s early years certain Northern States had passed laws which prohibited freed former slaves from voting; Pennsylvania and New Jersey being among the States which had passed such laws.
The next change came in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment; removing prohibitions on a woman’s right to vote. That’s right; it wasn’t until the 1900’s that women were given the right to vote.
Still, even after the ratification of these two amendments, the States found ways to prevent those these constitutional amendments applied to from voting. For instance, they could impose a poll tax; a tax which each citizen was required to pay prior to being allowed to vote. If you did not pay, or simply could not afford it, you were not allowed to vote.
Then in 1964 the Constitution was amended once again; for the 24th time, removing the requirement of paying a poll tax prior to being allowed to vote. The final time the Constitution was amended in regards to voting rights came during the Vietnam War era; when protestors argued that people were old enough to be drafted and sent off to fight for their country were not allowed to vote. Therefore, in 1971 the 26th Amendment was proposed, and ratified; which lowered the voting age to 18; where it remains until now.
As voting laws stand now, if you are over the age of 18, are an American Citizen, and not serving time in prison, you have the right to vote. This is both good and bad. It is good in that I believe that no one should be denied the right to vote based solely upon their race, gender, or age; as long as they have reached what we consider to be adulthood.
But it is bad in that it gives the right to vote to an unlimited number of ignorant people who don’t know the first thing about how our system of government was designed to work, nor the nature of their rights.
Prior to the Constitution being ratified, James Madison wrote, “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” The kind of government we have, and by that I mean whether it is virtuous and moral, or universally corrupt, is a reflection of the overall attitudes and principles held by the citizenry who choose those to fill the seats of power within it.
In 1877 President James Garfield explained this concept as follows, “Now more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.”
Many of those who either directly participated in our struggle for independence, the establishment of our system of government, or were simply alive in our country’s early years, spoke of the importance of an informed and virtuous citizenry when it came to voting.
For example, in an 1822 letter to W.T. Barry, James Madison wrote, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the Power that knowledge gives.”
Noah Webster, whose name is synonymous with the American Dictionary, once said, “If the citizens neglect their duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted …. If a republican government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the Divine commands, and elect bad men to make and administer the laws.”
Samuel Adams reflected on the solemnity of choosing wise and virtuous men for our leaders when he said, “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote….that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”
Far too often in this country I hear people crying about their rights; but never do I hear them discuss the responsibilities associated with those same rights. If I were to come up and tell you that you should not be allowed to vote, you would cry that it is your right. Yet were I to mention that it is your RESPONSIBILITY to be knowledgeable about the Constitution and Bill of Rights prior to being allowed to vote you would say that is an infringement upon your rights; that you need not be knowledgeable about those things to have the right to vote.
Yet to repeat Madison’s quote, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the Power that knowledge gives.”
You may choose to remain ignorant regarding how our system of government was designed to function, but that only opens the doorway for those you elect to exploit that ignorance and do things it was never intended they be allowed to do.
Therefore, although I still believe no one should be denied the right to vote, if I were in a position to do so, I would require that before being allowed to vote every U.S. Citizen would be required to pass a 10 question quiz on American History, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These tests would not be easy; they would be designed to prove you have a thorough understanding of the subject matter.
Like I said, no one should be restricted from voting due to age, gender, race, or any other identifying factor which distinguishes you from everyone else. The ONLY thing which should restrict people from voting would be ignorance of our system of government and our country’s history. But were these tests a requirement, I am certain people would complain and there would be some sympathetic judge out there who would rule that they violate the people’s rights.
In any case, I have prepared one such test just to see how much YOU know, and whether in Neal’s world you would be allowed to vote. So go ahead, try to pass this test if you can. Oh, by the way a passing score is 100%, there are no multiple choice answers, and no cell Phones allowed when you take it. Don’t want you Googling these questions now, do we?
1) What is a Writ of Assistance, what are similar to them in today’s world, and which Constitutional Amendment did they inspire our Founders to add to the Constitution?
2) What is meant by the following phrase, and where is it found? “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land…”
3) Explain how our current political parties came into existence and evolved over the course of our nation’s history.
4) Where is this quote found, who authored it, and what is meant by it; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”: thereby guarding in the same sentence, and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press: insomuch, that whatever violated either, throws down the sanctuary which covers the others…”
5) Explain what sovereignty is, and who has it in the United States.
6) Describe the difference between a federal and a national form of government.
7) Explain the method by which our Constitution can be modified.
8) The Constitution grants government how many powers? Name 5 of them.
9) Who said this and what is meant by it; “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”
10) Why did the Founders create a bicameral Congress; what purposes were both houses of Congress supposed to serve, and name a few powers held by each one which weren’t held by the other. Also explain how the purpose for a bicameral Congress was altered and when.
Well, how did you do; would you be voting in the next election or would you be brushing up on your history and civics? I know this dream would never happen; the last thing they want are educated voters. Besides, someone out there would cry that it was a violation of their rights that we required them to actually understand the system of government which they wanted to vote for people to occupy positions in it.
I mean, that’s simply too much to ask, too mean, to expect people to make truly informed decisions at the voting booth. Unfortunately, that right there is the problem; too many people making uninformed decisions when we hold our elections. Too many people voting for party over principle, over what a candidate can best do for them, or their cause, rather than how well they will adhere to the Constitution.
My test would not eliminate that problem entirely, but it would sure weed out a lot of people who are not deserving of the right of suffrage.
Unfortunately it will never happen; and that is why the following quote by H.L. Mencken still rings true today, “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”