Friday, November 19, 2010

Voting Rights Are Important

The right to vote is the fundamental right in a democracy. Democratic elections hold principal agents of the government accountable, allowing the population to exerciatse sovereignty through threats to elected officials that they'll be thrown out. Elected officials then go on to make laws, which are infused with democratic legitimacy. In theory, elected officials also control the bureaucracy and administrative agencies, meaning that these agencies are subject to attenuated popular control. Even courts, which are generally staffed by unelected judges, are constrained by jurisdictional grants within democratically made law. This is what it means to live in a democracy. Institutions are linked by some commitment to popular sovereignty which is enforced through free and fair elections.

If the individual right to vote is infringed, the legitimacy of this system quickly goes out the window. Popular sovereignty, while it only nominally controls decision-making within administrative agencies, loses all normative force when elections consistently fail to express the will of the people. The logical conclusion is that voting rights are important.

In fact, they're so important that voting rights should be suspended when we think that people haven't done enough to 'earn them.' You see, Ada Marijo Vik has this theory, apparently, that when rights are important--especially when they are fundamental in society--they should be highly restricted so that only the worthy enjoy them.
Why shouldn’t voting, the most important of our civil rights, be reserved for those who pay enough attention to voting to actually register in advance?
People should have as many obstacles thrown in their way as possible so they earn their rights. Once a citizen overcomes all the obstacles before them, they can claim the basic rights which allow them to participate in self-governance. Minnesota has a pretty stellar law which says that if you can prove you have lived in a precinct for 30 days on election day, you can vote. This is generally called a 'no excuse' voting law because citizens do not face a substantial burden to vote. Claiming that this low bar to voting is a bad thing is pretty typical of right wing demands on voter identification laws.

The Liberal tradition is based on a natural rights philosophy, which means that anything that a citizen would have a right to do absent society, they have a right to do within society unless they surrender that right in order to participate in society. The right to self-defense, for instance, is abrogated by society in order to prevent blood feuds. Instead of having individuals punish each other, we have the police and criminal justice institutions do this for us. Similarly, self-governance is a natural right to determine your own values and how to pursue goals. In a society, some governance capacity is given to society, effectuating a government of that society. In exchange, citizens get the right to determine the direction of that society. In democracies, this determination is contingent upon voting rights for the reasons outlined above.

The right-wing position does not see representative democracy as a right at all, but as a privilege. One earns privileges. Holding a drivers license is a privilege. The state determines who is capable of driving and regulates who legally can operate a motor vehicle. When a citizen earns that privilege, the state grants them a license. Conservatives seem to think that this is how we should deal with voting: when you fill out a voter registration form at least 30 days in advance of an election, earn a drivers license, and maybe pay a poll tax, you can vote! Making a right contingent upon threshold requirements transforms it into a privilege, available to a more constrained class of citizens.

Voting registration forms are essentially applications to vote. Minnesota decided a long time ago that if the application does not depend on qualifications other than age and residency, which can be proved at a polling place or even at a review stage after election day. They found that there was little reason to maintain the application process for a right. Minnesota conservatives want to make voting a privilege again, requiring voters to possess photo IDs and register at least 30 days before an election. These are the hoops; now jump through them. This is what the Minnesota Tea Party Patriots and conservatives think of rights, and it's why I'm pretty sure they're wrong.

To actually answer the question quoted above: because the people who don't pay attention to voting requirements months before elections are people too, and though you may resent the fact that democracy requires a commitment to all citizens' voices, you would have to offer a much better reason than 'they aren't as well informed as I am' to disenfranchise them.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for inviting me to comment via Twitter.

    Your question was "Is voting a right or a privilege?" Above you presume the conservative answer to be the latter. Some conservatives may see it that way. I do not, although my philosophy prescribes the same policy - photo ID and other sensible measures to ensure election integrity.

    Voting is a right. However, it is important to note that it is a civil right, not a natural one. Voting is not a natural process. The concept and practice of voting emerges from the creation of the state. It is therefore not only appropriate, but unavoidable for the right to be defined by the state. To the extent our republican form of government is intended to reflect the will of the people and protect the natural rights of each individual, I agree it is incumbent upon the state to secure the right to vote for all law-abiding competent adult citizens.

    Where we part ways is our priority in securing that right. You prioritize accessibility. I prioritize legitimacy. Both are important. However, I think our laws in Minnesota clearly err on the side of the former.

    When you have an election system which is too accessible, it is fundamentally no different than a vehicle or building which is too accessible. You wouldn't leave your home or vehicle unlocked and expect them to remain unviolated. Taking sensible measures to the secure the integrity of our election system adheres to the same uncontroversial axiom.

    We share a desire to protect the rights of eligible voters. In my view, more harm is done when an illegitimate vote is cast than when an eligible voter is unable to vote due to their own negligence. It's a simple equation. The vote of the engaged responsible citizen ought not be canceled out by an illegitimate vote just to make provision for the disengaged and irresponsible.

    I fundamentally disagree with your characterization of voter registration as an "application to vote." It is a process for verifying qualification to vote, not fitness to vote.

    That said, I don't find anything disconcerting about considering fitness to vote. What is the age qualification if not a measure of fitness? Do we disenfranchise a 16 year old by keeping them from the polls? Is the inexperience of youth the only potential inhibitor upon sound judgment? You can't just look at the rights side of the rights/responsibilities equation. The inability to act responsibly has always resulted in a commensurate loss of rights in civil society.