A right, not a privilege

October 16, 2006|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- Perhaps most of us have forgotten our high school civics classes, but there is one lesson so fundamental to the ideals of this democratic republic that it deserves to be encoded in our civic DNA: Voting is a right.

It is not reserved for the rich or the powerful, those who are tall or those who are pretty, the intellectually gifted or the musically inclined. It is a fundamental right of every American citizen 18 and older. The U.S. Constitution says so. Several times.

Every time I write on the contentious issue of voter IDs, I get letters and e-mails from readers insisting that voting is "a privilege" and if Americans want to vote badly enough, they ought to trouble themselves to get a government-sponsored photo ID, such as a driver's license. Well, according to the nation's founding document, that's not the way it works.

Voting is not like driving a car or boarding an airplane or renting a DVD. Governments may impose severe limitations on airline passengers and motorists; several speeding tickets can get your driver's license suspended. Your local video store gets to decide whether it will allow you to rent its movies and video games; photo IDs and credit cards are usually required to qualify.

But since the last great battle to expand the franchise - the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - federal courts have rarely tolerated obstacles to the ballot box. Judges have blocked several recent legislative attempts to make it more difficult for some people to vote, including an onerous voter ID requirement passed by the GOP-dominated Georgia Legislature. This month, a federal court in Arizona blocked a burdensome voter ID bill passed in that state.

The Georgia law might have kept as many as 300,000 law-abiding citizens from voting, simply because they don't have driver's licenses. Many elderly and impoverished voters in rural areas of the state don't drive, don't fly and don't rent movies. But they are nevertheless regular voters.

The idea of universal suffrage has long been controversial. Indeed, it took this country nearly two centuries to extend the franchise to all citizens; women didn't get the right to vote until 1920. Voters have the power to shift the political consensus in their favor, so it's a radical proposition to believe that every citizen should be able to cast a ballot. It is a testament to the vitality of this nation's democratic ideals that the franchise is now universally applied.

Recently, however, a new wave of rebellion against that egalitarian ideal has cropped up; a new generation of politicians, mostly Republicans, is determined to snatch the franchise away from some Americans. Just a month ago, the GOP-dominated House passed a bill that would require government-issued photo IDs to vote in federal elections. And several Republican-led state legislatures have either passed stringent voter ID rules or imposed onerous regulations for voter registration.

Republican leaders have strained mightily to convince the courts that they are just protecting the franchise from voter fraud. Consider the widespread threat of illegal immigrants sneaking into the polls to vote, just as they sneaked into our country to work. Or those Dumpster-diving impostors who steal someone's light bill out of the trash and then use it as ID to cast a fraudulent ballot. I've heard 7-year-olds spin more convincing yarns.

According to USA Today, a preliminary report commissioned by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has found little evidence of the sort of fraud that the new regulations purport to prevent. The bipartisan report found that "there is little polling-place fraud, or at least much less than is claimed, including voter impersonation, `dead' voters, noncitizen voting and felon voters," the newspaper wrote. (USA Today was able to obtain a copy of the study, which has not been released. Wonder why?)

Here's what the Republicans are really up to: They want to shave off a small group of voters who tend to cast their ballots for Democrats, including the poor and people of color. With the nation cleaved by fierce partisanship, statewide contests are increasingly decided by very small margins. If the GOP can block just a small percentage of likely Democratic supporters, they figure they'll increase their chances for victory.

That's not exactly what you learned back in ninth-grade civics, is it?

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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