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State of the Debate
George Pyle
George Pyle has been a newspaper writer in Kansas, Utah, Upstate New York, and now Utah again, for more than 30 years - most of it as an editorial writer and columnist. Now on his second tour of duty on The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board, he has also done a stretch as a talk radio host, published a book on the ongoing flaws of U.S.agricultural policy and, in 1998, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. His most active bookmarks are Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens and Tina Brown. And he still thinks the Internet can be used for intelligent conversation and uplifting ideas.

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(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo)
Speech to Utah League of Women Voters ...

In response to popular demand — well, seven people — I am posting the entire text of the speech I made Friday evening to the state convention of the Utah League of Women Voters:

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Neither the original Constitution of the United States nor the Bill of Rights specifically grants or protects a right to vote. Not for women. Not for minorities. Not even for free, white property-owning males. it seems to take it for granted that, based on centuries of British tradition and Colonial practice, the right to vote is basic to citizenship.

Article Four of the Constitution does charge the federal government with guaranteeing each state what it called a republican (small r) form of government, in which at least some measure of a right to vote would seem implicit.

Article One, the one that describes the form and function of the congress, does touch on the question by saying that voter qualifications in congressional elections must be no more – or less – restrictive than the standards the states set for those allowed to vote for "the most numerous branch" of that state’s legislature. Thus the founders apparently presumed that there would be a set of standards by which states, and the union, would authorize the franchise, and from the beginning the constitution sets out to recognize that and place a floor under it.

Article one adds another quibble a couple of paragraphs later. It says that the "times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed the each state by the legislature thereof; but congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations."

A lot of alterations occurred during and after the Civil War, with the 13th Amendment banning slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection of the law and the 15th Amendment banning the exclusion of any person from the right to vote due to their race or "previous condition of servitude."

It took another 60 years to pass and ratify the 19th Amendment, the one that said that all states must allow women to vote – a development that happened roughly simultaneously with the founding of this august organization, created to help the newly enfranched half of the American body politic not only make use, but make informed use, of this most basic power of the individual.

In 1962, the 24th amendment, banning the poll tax, was ratified.

In 1971, as 18-year-olds were being sent off to Vietnam by a government they couldn’t vote for, the states ratified the 26th Amendment, telling all states they could set the voting age no higher than 18.

Such amendments to the Constitution often contain the kicker "the congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." In the case of the reconstruction amendments, appropriate legislation was something Congress did not fully get around to for basically a century, with the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After that long line of successes, we have created a society where we are all required to at least pretend to support universal sufferage, as definied as all adult citizens, with some reasoned back and forth on such details as restoring the voting rights of convicted felons once they have served their time

or drilling into the details of the paperwork attendent to voter resistration

or concerns that the right to vote, sought for so long and as great sacrifice by so many, now seems valued by so few, at least as measured in voter turnout statistics, especially in so-called off-year elections, especially by younger people.

The big battles may seem to all be behind us.

The League of Women Voters, of course, continues. It works tirelessly to encourage people of both genders and all other descriptions to register and vote. And its mostly volunteer leaders and members engage in deep, reasoned, non-partisan research of important but complex issues so as to help female voters, as well as the other kind, to not only vote, but to vote intelligently.

This is useful work, obviously, as useful in an age when information bombards us from all directions as it was in an era when information traveled more slowly, by mail or by mysterious dots and dashes.

I would surmise that all of this devotion to active citizenship work rose from a day when the idea of women voting was something that a lot of people, of both genders, still had to get used to.

It was an idea that may well have arisen out of a perceived need to validate women’s suffrage through efforts to prove that women voters were taking this new empowerment seriously.

It was a perceived need for validation that may have seemed even greater after the election of 1920. That was the first american presidential election after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

That was the election where sexists and sore losers were heard to complain that the result of this revolution in democracy had been the landslide victory of the dim, but handsome, Republican Warren G. Harding over the less photogenic but, in the view of serious people then and since, the clearly better qualified Democrat James Cox – as well as over the federally imprisoned socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs.

After a generation or two of the idea of women voters moving from novelty to redundancy, the idea of an organization for only women voters was rescued from any sexist taint it may have had when it began to admit male members in 1973. Becoming, perhaps, in fact if not in name, the League for Women Voters.

(A trade organization with which I am familiar, the Society of Professional Journalists, has considered, though for now rejected, a proposal that it change its name to the Society for Professional Journalism. The idea being to recognize the increasing amount and importance of on-line amateur journalism, hoping to support the act rather than just the person, and in hopes of rasing the standards of all those who claim the cloak of freedom of the press, whether for pay or for love.)

Of course, when it comes to voting, there is no such thing as amateur or professional standing.

We are all equal at the ballot box.

Ah. do I hear you snickering?

I would certainly hope, and trust, so. If you are bothering to attend this meeting, then you are most likely among those who are most aware of the fact that the fight for universal suffrage in the United States is far from over.

In the year 2008, that Kenyan Socialist with the funny name went and got himself elected president of the United States – with the votes of a lot of folks who didn’t always bother to vote, or were to young to vote, in previous elections. In 2012, the same person went and did it again.

It was a bit more difficult the second time, in part because this chosen one somehow hadn’t managed to fix all the problems, new and inherited, that were still pestering the electorate, and in part because the idea of voting in a youngish black man was no longer such a pleasant novelty that it alone served to energize the mostly young, female and minority voters who had turned the previous election in his favor. But, as before, President Obama and his crack team of Internet and social media Jedi made the most of the voter support they did have.

They created an extensive a data-mining and outreach program called project Narwhal. It targeted specific potential voters with the specific messages that were thought the most likely to motivate those voters to volunteer, donate, talk to their friends and, finally, vote.

Why those same people weren’t called upon to set up the Obamacare Website is a puzzle. Probably something to do with federal procurement and contracting laws that don’t allow federal agencies to just make a phone call to a super geek friend and get something fired up.

The Romney campaign supposedly had a similar voter-targeting and motivation program called ORCA – maybe because killer whales are tougher than narwhals. But it was a miserable failure.

Amazingly, it was not really designed to be deployed until election day – when it was clearly far too late to stimulate republican and conservative turnout, especially in states that had moved to more early voting and voting by mail. The fact that the Romney system immediately crashed when it finally was turned on added insult to injury, perhaps. But it made little real difference. It was too late.

All the Republicans were able to do with their answer to Obama’s Project Narwhal was to lull themselves into that false sense of security that moved no less a political realist than Utah native Karl Rove to sit in front of the Fox News television cameras on election night and melt down into a slag heap of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. It fell to poor Mitt and Ann, trapped for months in that same right-wing echo chamber that so deluded Karl Rove, to handle the acceptance part.

Even before that embarrassing day, though, conservatives and Republicans across the nation were starting to figure out that boosting voter turnout could be a bad idea – for them, at least. Democrats could, at least sometimes, make it work.

Republicans couldn’t. Even if they hired more competent data-mining consultants and figured out that they had to switch on their systems months before election day, the demographics of the American population are quite simply and irrevocably trending against them.

Barack Obama and the Democrats who were elected to Congress with him rode a wave of votes from the young, mostly unmarried women, many voting for the first time, and from minorities of all ages, many of whom stood in line for hours to cast a vote for something many of them thought would never occur in their lifetimes – a black president. All the trends in the American population point to a time – in some places in the not-too-distant future, in some places in the here and now – where the Obama electorate is what the American electorate as a whole is going to look like.

More women are voting, and more of them are delaying both marriage and childbearing, either because they are building lucrative careers made possible by their education, or, especially if they lack that same educational status, because they can’t afford to do anything but work in much more menial professions and delay marriage and/or childbearing because they make the all-too-often reasonable decision that a husband from a similar socioeconomic background would just be another mouth to feed. Either way, that puts them in the classification of those who primarily vote, when they vote, for Democrats.

Immigration and birth rates also are changing much of the nation into a body politic where people who look like me – old white guys – remain the core of the Republican electorate even as their proportion of the voting public becomes, at most, a large plurality.

Republicans clung to control of the House of Representatives largely due to how extensively they had managed to gerrymander so many House districts. Otherwise, the fact that, nationally, all the votes cast for all the Democratic House candidates outnumbered all the votes cast for all the Republican House candidates by about a half-million votes might actually have mattered.

Republicans continue to control many state legislatures, often, though not always, through the same gerrymandering they have used to skew the membership of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In other cases, Republicans benefit from the fact that their base, angry old white guys and their long-suffering wives, are generally much more likely to vote in the lesser-known contests, where unknown and under-financed democrats just don’t have the Obama star-quality necessary to energize the voters most likely to support them. And they are using that continued power base to change the rules in a way that may delay, for a time, the effects of a changing electorate.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law has documented this wave of what has come to be known as voter suppression laws and activities in many states. Some of them are focused on turning back laws and policies, often only a few years old, that were designed to increase voter turnout. Those voter encouragement policies included days of early voting, sometimes at the courthouse, sometimes at a smattering of usual polling places, sometimes even on weekends.

While everyone can take advantage of such open-door policies, they are clearly liable to do the most good to working people who might have a difficult time getting off of work to vote on a Tuesday, especially if there is going to be a long wait.

They also encourage groups such as churches, senior centers, colleges and ad hoc efforts by that thing that many of us first heard of when it popped up on Senator Barack Obama’s resume – community organizers – to round up a bunch of people, maybe even charter a bus, and descend on the polling station as a group, maybe right after church on a Sunday.

All dressed up with somewhere very important to go.

Some people, mostly Republicans in swing states, came to believe that such activities were not properly selective enough and have been working to walk them back.

In June of 2011, the Maine Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that ended a 40-year tradition of allowing eligible voters in that state to register to vote at the polls on election day. The new law only required that voters register two business days before an election, not several weeks, as is common in many states. Still, a great many of those direct democracy Maine Yankees were offended. Including the Maine League of Women Voters.

Those opposed to the change moved to exercise what is known down east as a peoples veto. In very short order they got more than sixty thousand signatures on petitions and put a question repealing the bill – having the effect of restoring same-day voter registration – on the ballot that very November, only five months after the bill was passed. The peoples veto won, and same-day voter registration was restored, with just short of sixty percent of the vote.

That was, of course, far from the end of it.

Republican-controlled legislatures and governors in such varied states as Kansas, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have moved over the past couple of years to make it harder to register to vote, or to vote, or both.

Laws requiring voters to produce government-issued photo identification passed in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arkansas. laws requiring that voters produce proof of citizenship when registering to vote were passed in Kansas and Arizona.

The Pennsylvania law was the first. According to political gaffes by at least two high-ranking state Republicans – a gaffe being famously defined by pundit Michael Kinsley as a politician telling the truth – it was clear that while there were tall tales told about the need to prevent illegal aliens or other ineligible people from casting ballots, the real purpose of the law was to cut down on the chances of Democratic candidates to win in the state. The majority leader of the Pennsylvania House, at a party meeting where he was listing the accomplishments of republicans in state government, was caught on videotape saying, "Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done."

Enforcement of the Pennsylvania law was blocked by several court rulings. Governor Romney did not win the state of Pennsylvania. But Romney only lost by five percentage points, where, four years earlier, John McCain had lost the Keystone State by ten percentage points. Republican Party officials credited confusion over the law with making the difference. It was confusion they did much to encourage by blanketing the state with official mailings reminding people of the ID requirements of the law – without telling them that the law had been blocked.

The ALF-CIO agreed, though they were much less pleased, and released a study that claimed that confusion about who could vote deterred perhaps thirty-five-thousand eligible voters from casting their ballots.

Voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Arkansas have been struck down in just the past couple of weeks. The Wisconsin law was set aside by a federal judge who held a trial full of expert witnesses for and against and came out with a 90-page ruling that savaged the state’s contention that the law was necessary because of – and any problems caused by effectively excluding those least likely to have drivers licenses or passports was trumped by – the threat of voter impersonation at the polls.

Which.

Never.

Happens.

Federal District Court Judge Lynn Adleman found that the kind of threat the Wisconsin legislature was allegedly so afraid of was not only unlikely, it was already illegal as all hell.

In Wisconsin, as in most other states, it would require being brazen enough to walk into a polling place, give the full name and the correct address of someone who lives in that precinct, but who has not already voted, forge that person’s name on the poll book and take the risk that no one at the polling place will recognize that you are not that person.

Doing all those things amounts to a felony, which should be deterrent enough, especially for the boogeymen of voter suppression movements everywhere — illegal aliens — people whose Prime Directive in life is to avoid calling attention to themselves or interacting with government any more than is absolutely necessary.

The Arkansas law was set aside by a state judge who said adding extra requirements to voter registration would require amending the state’s constitution.

Both judgements are likely to be appealed. And, given the apparent view of the current majority of the United States Supreme Court — that when it comes to racial discrimination, affirmative action and voting rights, all is now for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds — the chances that these voter suppression laws will be reinstated is significant.

This is a court, after all, where blacks may be seen but are seldom heard, and which had no problem setting aside key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and knocking the pins out from under affirmative action.

The same may be true of the proof-of-citizenship laws in Kansas and Arizona, laws that were recently upheld by a federal judge in Kansas. A judge who, once upon a long time ago, was my college roommate.

The question he ruled upon was whether a state could have one set of rules for state elections and another set of rules for federal elections. He said they could. In so doing, he ruled against petitioners that included the Kansas and Arizona League of Women Voters. But he did so on a very narrow point of law that will allow me to speak no further ill of a fellow Wheatshocker.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina have moved to scale back on such things as early voting, specifically banning it on Sundays, when many churches, particularly churches in poor and black neighborhoods, have made voting on Sunday part of their pre-election day services.

In those cases, the supposed, and judicially suspect, motive of preventing voter fraud has been replaced by a claim that such practices need to be uniform across a state, and that it isn’t fair that highly populated, and well-staffed, urban precincts offer such advantage while more rural communities don’t have the demand, or the funds. Of course it has nothing to do with the fact that those uppity urban districts are the ones most likely to be the home of poor folks and minorities.

Sometimes, you don’t even need a law to discourage people from voting. Rumors will do. Confusion over what the law really was in Pennsylvania, as I mentioned, apparently frightened off tens of thousands of voters in that state.

In Florida, state officials are denying rumors that polling places – polling places where waits of seven hours have been common in high-turnout presidential elections – won’t allow anyone to go to the bathroom. But the denials come with seeds of a threat that the rumors might become real, as state officials note that not all polling places are in public buildings, and that those in other locations might be allowed to deny access to their rest rooms. They might even feel compelled to close them to voter access because they are not handicap accessible and thus illegally discriminate against the disabled.

But there is good news. And it comes from a place that, given the politics of other states where voter suppression is in full flower, might seem unlikely.

The good news is in Utah. And it is good news for which this organization can claim a significant share of the credit.

Utah has a voter ID law, as you no doubt know, but it is much less restrictive than those found in other Republican states. While a government photo ID is the Golden Ticket for any Utah polling place, alternatives are allowed. Things like other licenses, utility bills, government checks, Medicaid ID. Even the holy-of-holies, the all-to-easy-to-obtain concealed carry permit will suffice. There is also an opportunity for a voter who failed to bring proper documentation to the polls to cast a provisional ballot and clear it all up in the next few days.

In Utah, you can also register to vote online (if have a Utah drivers license, which most of us do) or by mail. And you can choose to put yourself on a list to permanently vote by mail – which all the eligible voters in my household have done, after approached at the downtown farmers market by representatives of this organization.

Thank you for that.

And, in just the last session of the Utah legislature, just as Republican controlled legislatures in other states were passing voter suppression laws, our state created a local option for county election officials to allow same-day voter registration – the same provision that voters in Maine went to great lengths to preserve. That was, I understand, a bill that took several years to pass, and that the Utah League of Women voters strongly supported.

It may be that our republicans are better than their republicans. It may be that our League of Women Voters is more persuasive than their Leagues of Women Voters. It may be that Utah is so far from being a swing state that our Republicans have no cause to fear increased voter turnout, because they have reasonable faith that most of it will be for them.

Faith that their Warren Hardings will continue to beat the other guys’ James Coxes.

Among the many good things about the passage of the same-day registration law in Utah was that it was a bi-partisan, or non-partisan, move to improve access to the polls for everyone. It was not, at least in the last session, something that pitted Republicans against Democrats. So the League was not placed in position of taking, or appearing to take, a partisan stand.

I know the league struggles with such matters, as it strives to be above – or at least apart from – partisan politics but finds itself much more often at odds with Republicans and aligned with Democrats on matters of voter access.

People who have a problem with the alignment of League priorities with Democratic policies should be able to point to a republican history of support for such things as the voting rights act and, of course, back to the republican origin of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

Or you can just say of the national Republican Party what Ronald Reagan once said of the national Democratic party – of which he had once been a supporter. You could say you didn’t leave the party. The party left you.

Voting, of course, matters greatly, both to the individual and to each city, state and to the nation. Doing it wrong, either out of ignorance or in a fraudulent manner has a great capacity to wound the whole culture. But, as the Supreme Court continues to find that political speech is to be totally unfettered – to the extent that there should be no effective limit on how much money can be marshaled in support of, or opposition to, any political candidate or issue – we should also argue that access to the ballot box should be as easy as it can be.

I would draw a more direct link between the right to speak and print and the right to vote. All should be largely defined as the original Blackstone Commentaries on the law defined the freedoms of speech and of the press:

No prior restraint.

Say what you want. Print what you please. Vote as you are moved to. Only afterward will society and its laws be allowed to question whether you have overstepped the legal bounds, whether you have committed libel or slander, whether you have voted in an election in which, by a constitutionally valid law, you should not have been allowed to participate.

This approach does put both a speaker and a voter at some risk. If there is not much of a gate preventing you from speaking or voting improperly, there is a chance that a person’s actions, to the extent they considered them at all, seemed to them to be protected, even innocuous. Only afterward may they find out that they are looking at having the proverbial boom lowered on them.

That risk to the individual is greatly minimized, though, by the fact that it will always be more difficult for an aggrieved person or an overzealous prosecutor to go after an individual for his speech, or her vote, after the fact that it would be for any power to put up broader, before-the-fact, barriers to either speaking or voting.

The burden must not fall on the speaker, or the voter, to justify their utterance, or their ballot. The burden – and it must be a heavy burden – should always be on those who would claim that you said something you shouldn’t have – basically limited to libel, slander or divulging state secrets in a way that demonstrably puts national security or individual lives at risk – or that you voted in a time and place that you shouldn’t have – clearly limited to cases where the voter was clearly committing a knowing fraud or deliberate misrepresentation of identity.

We in the press and you in the voting rights movement have a common cause. It is the cause of preserving meaningful freedom for each individual – a cause made even more urgent because it stands against the growing concentration of power in the hands of the few – a concentration of power that is particularly insidious because it is being justified, even ordered, in the guise of freedom – for those who can afford it.

We in the press are very proud indeed to share this cause with you.

I wish us all the best of luck.

Thank you.

And, happy Mothers Day.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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