MSNBC has been running quite a few of these "man on the street" segments, interviewing college students and millennials across the country ahead of the midterm elections, the purpose of which I'm not exactly sure of, since most people already know that young people are unreliable voters.
Following one of these segments this Saturday, where NBC reporter Simone Boyce spoke to a handful of more apathetic millenials, the discussion between Boyce and host Alex Witt turned to whether or not people ought to be able to vote on their mobile devices, which might encourage younger people who are used to being able to do just about everything else from their phones, to do just that.
Here's what Witt said in response:
WITT: I get that. As we were saying during the commercial break, I think there's something about citizens coming together, civil disobedience, and we all go, and you make your voice heard. And there's a tradition to it. I get you have to change and modernize some things, but I love that whole prospect of getting out the vote, or, look, my kids, if they're not necessarily in the districts where they live. They have to bother to apply for the absentee ballot, get that thing mailed to them, get it back to them.
I mean, it's not necessarily easy, but I sometimes don't think it should be that easy, because it is such a privilege, right?
In a word, no. Why is a host on cable news promoting the idea that it ought to be harder, not easier to vote, and that it should not be the right of every American to do so?
The right loves to promote the notion, as Witt did, that it's a privilege, and not a right, because they really don't want most of us to vote. Here's more on that from The Atlantic's Garret Epps.
The Constitution mentions "the right to vote" five times. Judges, and voter ID law proponents, don't seem to be getting the hint.
Which constitutional right is the most important? You might answer "freedom of speech" or "free exercise" of religion. Some think it's "the right to keep and bear arms." Criminal lawyers think of the guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures," trial lawyers of jury trial in civil cases.
But which right appears most often in the Constitution's text?
It's "the right to vote."
In voter ID cases all over the country, courts are considering the proper level of "scrutiny" to apply to "burdens" on the right to cast a ballot. In 2008, the Supreme Court approved an Indiana voter ID law, even conceding that it had a partisan basis, because it was not "excessively burdensome" to most voters. (Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for himself and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, concurred separately to suggest that the proper level of scrutiny was more like "whatever the legislature wants.")
Courts will defer to the wishes of legislators who wish to protect the election process. There was no evidence of fraud in the Indiana case; there's none in the Pennsylvania case or the others currently being heard. State officials claimed to be worried that someone somewhere might think there was fraud.
This is deference to bureaucrats that neither courts nor citizens would tolerate where a right considered truly important is at stake. Consider the right to free speech. The majority in Citizens United brushed aside public perceptions of corruption to allow unlimited "independent expenditures," even though far more citizens are cynical about campaign donations than about "fraudulent" voters. What about freedom of religion? Would we tolerate licensing of churches so atheists won't worry that "fraudulent" religion is being practiced?
Scholars and courts often note that the Constitution nowhere says, "All individuals have the right to vote." It simply rules out specific limitations on "the right to vote." A right not guaranteed in affirmative terms isn't really a "right" in a fundamental sense, this reading suggests.
But if the Constitution has to say "here is a specific right and we now guarantee that right to every person," there are almost no rights in the Constitution. Linguistically, our Constitution is more in the rights-preserving than in the right-proclaiming business. The First Amendment doesn't say "every person has the right to free speech and free exercise of religion." In the Second, the right to "keep and bear arms" isn't defined, but rather shall not be "abridged." In the Fourth, "[t]he right of the people to be secure ... against unreasonable searches and seizures" isn't defined, but instead "shall not be violated." In the Seventh, "the right of (civil) trial by jury" -- whatever that is -- "shall be preserved." And so on.
In those terms, it ought to mean something that the right to vote is singled out more often than any other. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment imposes a penalty upon states that deny or abridge "the right to vote at any [federal or state] election ... to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, ... except for participation in rebellion, or other crime." The Fifteenth states that "[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote" can't be abridged by race; the Nineteenth says that the same right can't be abridged by sex; the Twenty-Fourth says that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote" in federal elections can't be blocked by a poll tax; and the Twenty-Sixth protects "[t]he right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote."
So if our courts treat the ballot as less than a fundamental right, they aren't reading that in the Constitution, but projecting it onto the Constitution. The projection comes from a longstanding belief that the vote is not a "right," but a "privilege" -- something granted by the powerful to the deserving.
The "privilege" theory is one the United States regards as dangerous -- when practiced by other countries. After World War II, we imposed a constitution on Japan providing that "universal adult suffrage is guaranteed." The "Basic Law" of Germany gained a provision that "[a]ny person who has attained the age of eighteen shall be entitled to vote." The citizens of Afghanistan "have the right to elect and be elected." Article 20 of the 2005 Constitution of Iraq provides that "Iraqi citizens, men and women, shall have the right to participate in public affairs and to enjoy political rights including the right to vote, elect, and run for office."
It would be nice if Witt and her ilk would spend more time on voter suppression and the security of our election systems, rather than the nonsense we were treated to in the segment above.