Media Matters reports that a guest on Fox News, Jay Sekulow, has claimed that “voting is a privilege” by way of trying to defend the new voter ID law in Texas. Although Sekulow was a leading voice on the far right long before the Tea Party emerged, still his position on voting as a privilege is one that Tea Party leaders have stated before.
This position is consistent with the Tea Party argument that we should emulate the Founders of our nation in as many ways as possible. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, all of the original states had property requirements for voting. They relaxed those requirements for the voting on delegates to the conventions for deciding on whether to ratify the Constitution, given the plebiscitary character of the decision to adopt a plan of government. But property requirements for ordinary voting did not disappear from the states until the 1830s and 1840s.
This elitism of the Founders appears in the original Constitution in the provision that state legislatures would choose U.S. Senators, a provision we have since changed.
Needless to say, de facto prohibitions on African Americans and all women voting existed in all states.
But, as this review of a scholarly study of the topic indicates, even the Founders’ views on the topic varied, as one would expect: “Constitution-makers increased the number of people taking part in government as another means of protecting rights, lives, and property. The right to vote became ‘the standard of full citizenship’; it was the best means by which men could become ‘politically competent.’ Men who could not vote were not represented; if they could not vote, they could not protect themselves against oppressive legislatures. Men could not depend on independent, virtuous representatives, acting for the common good. The right to elect representatives, then, was viewed as the greatest of rights. Consequently, framers lowered property qualifications for voting. A wide-ranging debate on suffrage took place…. [T]he suffrage debate showed that more people wanted political competence.”
In general, we modern Americans have very different ideas of “equality” than the Founders, many of whom owned slaves, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the right to vote. In the history of the United States Constitution, we have amended it more times to expand the right to vote than for any other purpose (14th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 24th, 26th). It is important to note in this context that, in addition to property requirements, many of the original states also prohibited religious minorities from voting, and that the trend toward universal white, male suffrage was part of a general trend toward openness in government, including legislatures meeting in public and publishing their proceedings. Indeed, since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it is difficult to deny that the citizens of the United States have concluded that conviction of a felony is the only valid reason to deny anyone in the United States the right to vote.
Needless to say, in no state is failure to possess a photo identification a felony offense, or even any offense at all. Therefore, requiring photo ID to vote is not a valid practice in the United States, nor is requiring property ownership as a condition for the right to vote. Such requirements fit conveniently with Republican Party preferences in being facially neutral, but having the intended effect of mostly preventing from voting persons who characteristically vote for Democrats: racial and ethnic minorities, young persons, and elderly persons.
Given the observation above that persons who cannot vote cannot defend themselves from oppressive legislatures, it is difficult to avoid wondering what ulterior motives Republicans have for wishing to prevent these groups from voting. It seems reasonable to ask as well what other innovations, besides universal suffrage, that have emerged since the founding, do Republicans want to eliminate. Do they want to return to the practice of prohibiting religious minorities from voting? We should ask them this.