In less than one year, America will go to the polls with the intention of electing a new president. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, the continuing widespread doubt among the people regarding the outcome of our elections is corrosive to government and democracy. Some people claim that there are too many illegal immigrants voting in elections, while others claim the new electronic voting machines are too susceptible to fraud. Either way, the public consensus about the outcome of our elections is crumbling.
All over America, activist and citizen groups are trying to address the problem from their own point of view. A voting bill known as HR 811, proposed and sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, got kicked all around Congress by special interests. The progressive group People for the American Way faced off against many election reform advocates, while many conservative groups clamored that the bill was silent on their concerns. The debate even drew in software companies like Microsoft. But throughout the country, these fights are being waged locally, often by people of good will, and sometimes by cynical actors in misinformation campaigns. Yet through it all, no one seems to ask: What do we mean by a good election, anyway?
In an oddity of history, our US Constitution is silent on this all-important issue; which is to say that the people have never stated our collective definition of a good election. Although some people read the Constitution as a stagnant set of principles put down by some wise men two hundred years ago, its central idea is that the power to create government arises from the fact that the people are independent, free, and sovereign. That’s why the first words are: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, …” Every generation has to look at that statement and reflect: Are “we the people” satisfied with the historical statement, or need we say something more?
In relation to elections, the question is this: Is it still aceeptable to rely on old assumptions about what a good election means? Or do we need to debate and state the principles, as we see them today, in clear terms? Given the chaos surrounding national legislation and the circus atmosphere in many states, the answer is evident: Yes, it is time for us to say what we mean, as a people.
The mechanism for such a statement is not legislation. Legislation is too complicated and intricate. It is the work lawmakers are charged with—creating laws that implement the principles stated in our Constitution. Most citizens do not have the time to pour over the details of hundred-page and thousand-page bills, call legislators, and debate from an informed standpoint. In contrast, a constitutional amendment can be a simple, succinct statement of principles which uphold our ability to self-govern. Anyone can understand the principles stated and join the debate without needing to understand the nuances of software code, trade secret regulations, registration procedures, etc.—nuances which properly belong to legislation. We can all debate questions about whether or not our ballots should be secret and anonymous, whether or not the citizens and citizen election judges should be able to observe the count of votes, and whether or not our systems should be auditable. We can even debate and discuss whether or not voters should be citizens. We can, but through our history, we never have had that debate directly.
Amending the US Constitution is not a remedy for all things. It should never be used as a replacement for legislation. But when the general guiding principles of our democratic republic need clarification, statement, or wide debate, amendments to the Constitution is the place to do it. In fact, it is the only place to do it.
Note: Proposed language for such an amendment appears on the website www.freeandfairelections.org.