Now, I’m not the one to invoke the phrase “founding principles”, especially when I talk about the Constitution (I don’t believe in strict constitutional originalism). However, when talking about the American Revolution, I’m a little bit more comfortable. Leading up to the American Revolution, there truly were a few basic ideas that drove the conflict. While the exact nature of these ideas might be hard to pinpoint, they can be seen throughout American literature, newspapers, pamphlets, and other mediums of communication and were embraced by a majority of the American people. One of those ideas is representation of the people based on popular election.
The word democracy was used in an unusual way during the Enlightenment era. It was either used in contempt, e.g. Madison’s Federalist Paper 10 had this to say about “pure” democracy:
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Or it was used in conjunction with the words monarchy and aristocracy, as an essentially part of a mixed constitution. However, despite this confusion of terms, Americans held dear the right to vote:
Actual representation had more than constitutional importance for American politics. It had social significance as well. Even before the Revolutionary turmoil settled, some Americans, as we have seen, began arguing that mere voting my ordinary men was not a sufficient protection of ordinary men’s interests if only members of the elite continued to be the ones elected. It was coming to be thought that in a society of diverse and particular interests, men from one class or group, however educated and respectable, could no be aquatinted with the needs and interests of other classes and groups. Wealthy college-educated lawyers or merchants could not know the concerns of poor farmers or small tradesmen. As we have seen, the logic of actual representation required that ordinary men be represented by ordinary men, indeed by men of the same religion, ethnic group, or occupation.
While the story of voting rights in America has been far from perfect (do I even need to talk about women?) and these egalitarian ideas were at odds with the rationale of slavery, it was these thoughts that conceived the Revolution. Although the bumpy history of voting rights has been tough, we have finally reached something that comes close to equal suffrage:
Despite an electorate that at times seems apathetic, interest in suffrage and in the equality of consent has never been greater than it has over the past generation. Such a concern naturally puts on a terrific burden on our political system, but it is a burden we should gladly bear (and many other nations would love to have it), for it bespeaks an underlying popular confidence in the process of politics that surfaces events and news headlines tend to obscure.
So why do we need voter ID laws? The answer is, we don’t. It’s clear the allegations about voter fraud are at best extremely exaggerated and that these laws will disproportionately affect the poor and minorities. Voter ID laws ultimately amount to an arbitrary barrier to voting for particular social groups. There is no other rhyme or reason to it.
Now, I’m not going to speculate that the Republicans and Conservatives who support these laws are racists or nefarious individuals, that would be irresponsible and stupid. But I find it ironic that the political party that claims they act in the tradition of America’s founding principles and that liberals don’t understand these principles tend to ignore this bit of American history and tradition. It’s quite funny to say the least.
1. Wood, Gordon S. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.