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OUR VOTING RIGHTS - A State-by-State Analysis

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In an off-handed comment made after the 2012 election, President Barack Obama said we need to fix our election process.  This is a welcome suggestion.  Our election process is badly broken and we need to take a good look at it.  We should start by asking: 

What voting rights do I have in my state? 

 This is not a commonly asked question, but it should be.  Most of us believe voting rights are guaranteed under the federal constitution. This isn't exactly true.  The Constitution contains several amendments to prevented states from disenfranchising certain categories of voters. For example, states cannot use race, religion, gender or the age of anyone 18 or older as a means to disqualify a "citizen" from voting.  The actual right of suffrage, however, isn't a federal guarantee. This is up to the states.  Fixing our voting system will be a state by state effort.

In all our public discussions about elections there is rarely mention of how voting rights differ in various states. When you look at state constitutional language on voting rights, however, you quickly learn that many of the rights we take for granted, such as a right to secret ballots, are nowhere to be found in most state constitutions.  In fact, state constitutional voting rights differ widely from one state to the next.   

The wide variation in voting rights are not immediately evident because state laws, administrative regulation and voting practices over time have created consensual frameworks for elections that appear similar from state to state.  For example, the vote counting process is open for public view in most states, but only the constitutions of LouisianaSouth Carolina and Virginia guarantee public vote counting.  California is the only state guaranteeing that  votes will even be counted.  After candidates concede defeat based on vote projections, other states are not constitutionally obligated to finish counting every ballot.   

When elections run smoothly and no questions are raised, everyone consents to the will of the majority. This is true because in a representative democracy, elected officials are expected to represent everyone's interests and not just the interests of those who voted for them. But when elections are very close and the process seems flawed, explicit constitutional language is essential to protect the democratic process and win over the consent of the minority.  Elections have consequences.  Flawed elections or overtly partisan representation can have dire consequences. Faith in our democracy begins with faith in our voting systems. 

I am not a lawyer or constitution expert, but curiosity about state voting rights caused me to survey all fifty state constitutions and document the articulated rights in each.  Some results of this exercise are presented in the tables below.  Keep in mind that some constitutions have very archaic language or formats that make them difficult to interpret.  The information below represents my best effort to classify and document basic voting rights as articulated in state constitutions.  It is followed by a brief discussion for each of the categories presented below. 

Basic Voting Right Articulated in  Individual   State  Constitutions


Table of Basic Voting Rights Found in State Constitutions by
Brian Lynch

DISCUSSION OF VOTING RIGHTS FOUND IN STATE CONSTITUTIONS

RIGHT TO HAVE EVERY VOTE COUNTED  --  As mentioned above, California is alone in this protection. This right may seem obvious or implied,  but there are documented instances where absentee ballots have gone missing and uncounted.  One example took place back in 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when garbage bags believed to contain missing ballots were impounded by police but not opened because it was unclear if the missing ballots had to be counted.   

GENERAL RIGHT OF SUFFRAGE -  Many state constitutions have high sounding language about how all power is derived by the people, but only nine state explicitly guarantee the right of suffrage.  Suffrage is the right to vote in a democratic process. It is the political franchise itself, not the right of any one individual. It says that elected officials do not have the power to suspending elections.  This seemingly essential right of the people is specifically named in only nine state constitutions. 

RIGHT TO FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS -- "In any State the authority of the government can only derive from the will of the people as expressed in genuine, free and fair elections held at regular intervals on the basis of universal, equal and secret suffrage."  So said the Inter-Parliamentary Council  at its 154th session in Paris26 March, 1994.  Here in the US, the State Department  was actually very helpful in sharing their view on what "Free and Fair Elections" mean with nations whose democracies are less advance than our own.  They provided third-world countries with the following guidelines:   

Free and fair elections require:

-- Universal suffrage for all eligible men and women to vote -- democracies do not restrict this right from minorities, the disabled, or give it only to those who are literate or who own property

-- Freedom to register as a voter or run for public office.

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http://www.datadrivenviewpoints.com

Brian Lynch is a retired social worker who worked in the areas of adult mental health and child protection for many years. His work brought him into direct contact with all the major social issues of the day and many of our basic social (more...)
 
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