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?
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
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
DISCUSSION OF VOTING RIGHTS FOUND IN STATE CONSTITUTIONS
RIGHT TO HAVE EVERY VOTE COUNTED -- As mentioned above,
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
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.