Genesis of Voting

Washington Times 3.07.00
Balint Vazsonyi

On a day known as Super Tuesday, it seems entirely appropriate to address the topic of voting. The ability to cast a ballot is now as basic an American right as those to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That was not always the case.

When the Constitution was agreed upon and ratified, all sorts of people did not vote. This shocking state of affairs is punctuating the academic round tables and town meetings - we call them "We The People" forums - as the "Re-elect America" national bus tour winds its way across the southern flank of this great continent.

This is the way it happens. We begin each event with an enumeration of America's founding principles - the rule of law, individual rights, security of property and our common American identity - which we present as the "Four Points of America's Compass." Then we invite members of the panel to comment. Panels are carefully constituted to include a majority of those who are presumed to have reservations about the founders and the founding of America.

Still, everyone's first utterance is an affirmation of the person's approval of our founding documents, although it is often pointed out straightaway that "the Constitution was a compromise and very much in need of updating." Nonetheless, gradually, as each principle is explored, the genius of the framers emerges in every more glorious dimensions.

That is when what we have come to call "the laundry list" is trotted out.

The list begins with the "three-fifths" clause of Article I, and goes on to women no having the vote until 1920. (In case of extreme need, the interment during World War II of families of Japanese origin is thrown in.)

I apologize for sounding frivolous. These, of course, are all serious matters. But it is remarkable how the exact same grievances are recited from the southern tip of Florida to the northwestern corner of Washington state every time the Constitution is discussed. It is remarkable because all these matters lie in the distant past. It is remarkable because the sole purpose appears to be to rebuke, castigate, indeed disapprove of America's founders. And, more often than not, the poison arrows hit their target. Those who identify with America's founders bow their heads in shame.

We are in the year 2000. How about calling it a day?

The concept of a universal right to vote did not grow on trees. Nor does the Constitution provide for any such thing. It therefore cannot be a weakness of the Constitution that women did not vote because the Constitution does not speak to the matter one way or the other. Nor does the Constitution define people of African origin as three-fifths of a human being. Rather, in its original - now defunct - wording, it prescribes that ratio in the apportionment of representatives and taxes, referring to "the whole number of free persons...and three-fifths of all other persons."

The purpose, as is well-known, was to avoid undue influence by the slave-holding states. But we should look beyond the standard explanation.

The clear implication of slaves notwithstanding, it is remarkable that the framers stopped short of any reference to origin, race or skin color. By attaching the injurious fraction to a state of being that could always change, as opposed to race or color which is permanent, they left the door wide open. And let us remember, when the time arrived for the liberated slaves to exercise their franchise, they became beneficiaries of a political structure established by Americans - and no one else.

Although I understand that women voted in New Jersey as early as the time of the founding, Wyoming led the way by enacting such a law in 1889, and at least three different explanations exist in learned books as to how that came about. Our team can hardly wait to arrive in Wyoming and ask everyone we encounter.

With some difficulty, I can sympathize with women who get exercised in the year 2000 about other women who could not vote in the year 1919, although it has yet to be demonstrated that such a condition was a source of unhappiness for a majority.

It is more puzzling to experience men, especially of the white variety, brandishing about this piece of history as once the blood-stained sword was carried around to demonstrate guilt. A broader context is revealed when the (white male) mayor of a state capital) in extolling the merit of America's founders, utters the words: "Of course, they were not perfect. They were white males. And they were landowners."

Lest the reader takes the mayor's words for a tongue-in-check-remark, let me assure everyone that the sentences were delivered in utter earnestness.

How did we get here?

How did we succumb to an unseen hand implanting stereotyped sin lists and clearly nonsensical attitudes into American brains, once the favorite place of residence for common sense?

All of us, over 18 and not convicted of a felony, can vote now. We are free to do so every couple of years, but the one this time around is promising to have far-reaching consequences. Let us take a moment to contemplate to whom we owe the privilege, and let those who appointed themselves to avenge past injuries - real or perceived - go on to a more productive and fulfilling existence.