America just recently commemorated its birthday, Independence Day, celebrating freedom from the oppressive monarchy and aristocracy from which its forefathers fled.
But the weeds of aristocracy — the stubborn and relentless efforts to choke out equal representation — could not be more evident than in the recent surge across the country to make it more difficult for American citizens to exercise their right to vote.
The Declaration of Independence is unequivocal about the principles on which this nation was founded and what should guide it moving forward.
We are familiar with these famous often repeated words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
How is the consent of the governed determined and received? Through the right and act of voting. How a citizen casts that vote should have been settled long ago. Furthermore, the process should be the same for everyone.
But how has that fundamental principle enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and proclaimed and outlined in the Constitution of the United States and its amendments, fared during the last 245 years? The American Revolutionary War freed us from the rule of a monarchy and aristocracy, establishing the United States as the first modern constitutional democracy. America has fared well in some areas. In many other areas, not so well. Especially the bedrock principle that “all men are created equal.”
Since its adoption, it has been very clear that the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence applied primarily to wealthy white men. The ongoing fight around voting rights is the greatest evidence of how deeply the weeds of Aristocracy are embedded in how America grows or fails to grow and achieve equal representation for all.
Look at what the journey has been when it comes to exercising the most basic right of voting. We only need to remember that white women — not all women — didn’t get the right to vote until 134 years after the Constitution was ratified, with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The fight for Blacks to get and exercise the right to vote has been a bit more arduous. While the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1870, barred denying voting rights based on race, it left the door open for states to determine the specific qualifications and requirements for voting. This door allowed southern state legislatures, particularly, to use all kinds of hurdles — poll taxes, literacy tests, guessing how many jellybeans were in a jar — to disenfranchise a majority of Black voters.
It took Blacks 179 years after the Constitution was ratified, and long after the passage of the 15th Amendment, to be fully granted the right to vote with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But the issue is still not settled.
Fast forward to today. The weeds of aristocracy are blossoming in many state legislatures who are passing restrictive laws in efforts to stunt the desires of new voters and choke out millions of eligible, legal and needed votes to carry out the will of the people.
Despite the rights and privileges the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution proclaim are endowed to all citizens, the non-aristocratic citizens are the most at risk for being denied them — Blacks and other people of color, the poor and the elderly.
Their equal representation, their voices, stand to be weakened and silenced by the growing weeds of aristocracy that are seizing and taking over their fundamental right to, freely and without obstruction, cast their vote.
So how do we counter, if not permanently stop, this onslaught of efforts to impede equal representation? How do we go about ensuring that every legal and eligible citizen is able to cast their vote?
There are major legislative efforts working their way through the halls of Congress to protect the right to vote. Whether or not meaningful federal legislation will find success remains to be seen.
There are those who are adamant about leaving the details of the requirements and how votes are cast up to individual states as it has been since the adoption of the Constitution.
But what has that practice gotten us? To a place where all these new rules and regulations are emerging and being passed whether they are warranted, needed or not. In the meantime, this bifurcated approach to preserving the most critical and defining element of a healthy democracy is putting the future of our democracy at grave risk.
The Constitution has been amended a number of times to protect and improve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for its citizens. Is it time for the Constitution to be amended to clarify once and for all the qualifications and the requirements for voting across all states and for all elections and electoral processes? Wouldn’t that be the best way to ensure and safeguard equal representation for all?
Amending the Constitution is a major deal. In addition to getting legislation through Congress, any amendment requires ratification by 38 states before it becomes law. Major change takes time. But given what is happening in many states, the timing to pursue a Constitutional amendment is now.
Such an amendment would go a long way to discourage and stop the weeds of aristocracy from proliferating, at will, to suppress America’s growth toward a better and stronger democracy.
This commentary by Janice Ellis is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.