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The Most Important Right?

Kevin Drum sets me up to make one of my favorite rhetorical points. Writing about the question of voting rights for people who have completed their sentences for felony crimes, and responding to an inane point from National Review Online, he says,

If you asked me to name the most fundamental rights of U.S. citizen -- the absolute minimum core that we could have and still call ourselves America -- I'd name three: freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, and the right to vote. The government should not be in the business of limiting any of these things except in the most extreme cases.

It's not just Kevin's opinion that these are fundamental rights. There is actually an "official" answer to this question. If you become a naturalized citizen of the U.S., one of the questions on the test is likely to be, "WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT RIGHT GRANTED TO U.S. CITIZENS?"

If you answer, freedom of peaceful assembly, or freedom to worship as I please, or either of Kevin's other two, you're Wrong. Back on the boat, Sergio! The official Most Important Right, according to our government, is, The right to vote.

I assume what they mean by this is that this is the most important right that one gains upon becoming a citizen that one did not possess as a legal permanent resident, but it isn't at all clear. But Kevin's point is correct: if this is "the most important right," why should it be taken away for life on a felony conviction? Long after a person has completed a sentence, and regained most (though not all) of his or her other rights, this right is still denied in Florida, Texas and many other states.

And this raises other questions as well: If the right to vote is "The most important right," why is it the only right that you have to register your intent to exercise months in advance? We should not only allow felons to vote -- frankly, I would allow people to vote while incarcerated, as learning the habits of citizenship is part of preparing to reenter the community -- but also allow immediate voter registration on the day of the election, or abandon the concept of voter registration entirely. Show up with any proof of residence and citizenship, and you can vote. Your name is immediately entered into a state-level computer system so that you can't vote again that day, and won't need ID in the future. There's no reason it can't be that simple, and if this is truly "The Most Important Right," we would do it.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 9, 2005 | Permalink


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seems to work in other places, maybe it should be tried. Along with direct voting for president, with the candidate with the most votes, the winner.

Posted by: latibulum | Mar 9, 2005 9:40:30 AM

"Your name is immediately entered into a state-level computer system so that you can't vote again that day, and won't need ID in the future."

Somebody alert Joe Klein! Another bulletpoint for his Information Age Isn't The Industrial Age crusade.

Posted by: &y | Mar 9, 2005 11:37:52 AM

Oh Mark, rehabilitation is so old-school liberal. We gave up on that idea a long time ago. Those lefties in Massachusetts decided that the SJC ruling that felons had the right to vote while in prison was no good and decided to amend the Constitution a few years ago to stop them--even though not many actually did.

Maine and Vermont are the last hold-outs.

In all seriousness, I agree that registering to vote should nto be so hard.

Posted by: Abby | Mar 9, 2005 12:34:21 PM

I am a liberal, but am opposed to a felon voting. However, someone who serves out their sentence should have that right after a certain number of years. I do think punishment is appropriate, and the loss of a right to vote should be part of that punishment.

Posted by: Rob W | Mar 9, 2005 1:27:12 PM

Taking the right to vote away from felons is simply another way to marginalize large portions of the minority populations in this country. With disproportionate numbers of blacks and hispanics in jails across america, forbidding them to vote is simply a very convenient way to keep the WASPs in power and to keep prison conditions as poor as we like.

Posted by: Jon | Mar 9, 2005 1:32:16 PM

We've got same-day voter registration in Minnesota (much to the chagrin of our hyper-partisan Secretary of State) and I think it has to go some way toward explaining our nation's-best voter turnout rates. I believe my Congressman, Martin Sabo, has made efforts to make same-day registration a nationwide thing, with predictably little progress. I'm all for it, though I will add that you would probably need to address the worry that citizens would be able to vote in multiple states.

Judith Shklar's American Citizenship is a very moving evocation of the importance of the right to vote in American life and history.

Posted by: Jeff L. | Mar 9, 2005 1:55:36 PM

Rob W. I prefer to allow incarcerated prisoners to vote, but it's not something I would go to the mat for. (Most of them don't bother anway.)

On the issue of felon voting, I think that you can make a case similar to the one made by those who oppose the death penalty on pragmatic grounds, i.e. it's not fool proof, and it's impossible to be sure that no innocents are harmed. I think that Florida shows that it is too easy to manipulate those lists or to get a middle initial wrong. This disenfranchises many innocent people. I am not comfortable with even one person being denied their right to vote. I would rather err on the side of having a few non-citizens vote rather than preventing citizens from voting.

Disenfranchisement laws mean that the risk of disenfranchising the innocent is unacceptably high.

Also, don't you think that prison is bad enough? I mean, why do we need to prevent these people from re-entering society after they have done their time?

Posted by: Abby | Mar 9, 2005 2:49:04 PM

I have to say, I do think people should have to show ID to vote. There isn't really any reason why an 18-yr old person today wouldn't have an ID ( you need to have one to board a plane, even if you don't drive), and people carry their ID's everywhere anyway. It's no hassle to show it, it's not an invasion of privacy (you're telling the voter guys who you are anyway), and it *is* important that the person voting who claims to be me, actually is me. I shouldn't be able to go and vote for all of my male friends, but since I don't need to show any ID in Chicago, I definitely could.

Posted by: Anno-nymous | Mar 9, 2005 2:52:41 PM

North Dakota has no voter registration (see here), and they seem to get by okay.

Posted by: FS | Mar 9, 2005 4:24:20 PM

Texas restores convicted felons' voting rights 5 years after completion of sentence. it's not a terrible rule. If the felon goes 5 years without committing more felonies, vote away.

Posted by: Lemon Merengue | Mar 10, 2005 2:45:12 AM

In order to disfranchise anyone, the burden of proof should be on those who want to limit the electorate. What problems have felons voting caused in the past? Are these supposed problems great enough to warrant the process of disfranchisement, including false positives? My guess is that their is no practical (as opposed to ideological) reason to disfranchise felons other than partisan advantage.

Posted by: catfish | Mar 10, 2005 11:25:31 AM

The background of laws to restrict felons' voting rights makes their purpose clear; it's got nothing to do with anything but minimizing political power by poor people, and especially black poor people. The states that still have the most restrictions are the former Confederacy.

Posted by: eb | Mar 10, 2005 12:54:41 PM

The Constitution does not grant the right to vote to all US citizens. The original constitution permits the States to set the conditions of the franchise. There are many amendents that prohibit the States from abridging the "right to vote on one or another ground, eg the 15th (race), 19th (sex), 24th (no poll tax), 26th (18-year olds). But the 14th Amendment permits the States to deprive any person of "life, liberty or property" so long as it is done in accordance with due process. It would seem that deprivation of the vote would be deprivation of a form of liberty, so it can be a part of a legally imposed punishment.

Posted by: JR | Mar 10, 2005 11:33:51 PM

After reflecting on JR's federalist point, I believe that the right to vote may not be not our most important right. Though I can see why the government is eager to have us, and particularly new citizens, believe it is.

Posted by: eb | Mar 12, 2005 3:14:26 PM

I voted against the Massachusetts amendment. One big reason is that keeping felons from voting provides an incentive to put people who might vote against you in jail for felonies. And given the makeup of the felon population in states that have strict laws against felon voting (especially states that forbid it for life), I don't think this is a fanciful concern.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Mar 14, 2005 7:24:53 PM

While it's technically possible, it's actually amazingly difficult for non-drivers to get state ID cards here in Massachusetts. The Registry of Motor Vehicles is in charge of it, and at most RMV offices the people at the desk have no idea how to give you an ID that is not a driver's license.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Mar 14, 2005 7:30:09 PM