Genesis of Voting
On a day known as Super Tuesday, it seems entirely appropriate to
address the topic of voting. The ability to cast a ballot is now
as basic an American right as those to life, liberty and the pursuit
That was not always the case.
When the Constitution was agreed upon and ratified, all sorts of
people did not vote. This shocking state of affairs is punctuating
the academic round tables and town meetings - we call them "We
The People" forums - as the "Re-elect America" national
bus tour winds its way across the southern flank of this great continent.
This is the way it happens. We begin each event with an enumeration
of America's founding principles - the rule of law, individual rights,
security of property and our common American identity - which we
present as the "Four Points of America's Compass." Then
we invite members of the panel to comment. Panels are carefully
constituted to include a majority of those who are presumed to have
reservations about the founders and the founding of America.
Still, everyone's first utterance is an affirmation of the person's
approval of our founding documents, although it is often pointed
out straightaway that "the Constitution was a compromise and
very much in need of updating." Nonetheless, gradually, as
each principle is explored, the genius of the framers emerges in
every more glorious dimensions.
That is when what we have come to call "the laundry list"
is trotted out.
The list begins with the "three-fifths" clause of Article
I, and goes on to women no having the vote until 1920. (In case
of extreme need, the interment during World War II of families of
Japanese origin is thrown in.)
I apologize for sounding frivolous. These, of course, are all serious
matters. But it is remarkable how the exact same grievances are
recited from the southern tip of Florida to the northwestern corner
of Washington state every time the Constitution is discussed. It
is remarkable because all these matters lie in the distant past.
It is remarkable because the sole purpose appears to be to rebuke,
castigate, indeed disapprove of America's founders. And, more often
than not, the poison arrows hit their target. Those who identify
with America's founders bow their heads in shame.
We are in the year 2000. How about calling it a day?
The concept of a universal right to vote did not grow on trees.
Nor does the Constitution provide for any such thing. It therefore
cannot be a weakness of the Constitution that women did not vote
because the Constitution does not speak to the matter one way or
the other. Nor does the Constitution define people of African origin
as three-fifths of a human being. Rather, in its original - now
defunct - wording, it prescribes that ratio in the apportionment
of representatives and taxes, referring to "the whole number
of free persons...and three-fifths of all other persons."
The purpose, as is well-known, was to avoid undue influence by
the slave-holding states. But we should look beyond the standard
The clear implication of slaves notwithstanding, it is remarkable
that the framers stopped short of any reference to origin, race
or skin color. By attaching the injurious fraction to a state of
being that could always change, as opposed to race or color which
is permanent, they left the door wide open. And let us remember,
when the time arrived for the liberated slaves to exercise their
franchise, they became beneficiaries of a political structure established
by Americans - and no one else.
Although I understand that women voted in New Jersey as early as
the time of the founding, Wyoming led the way by enacting such a
law in 1889, and at least three different explanations exist in
learned books as to how that came about. Our team can hardly wait
to arrive in Wyoming and ask everyone we encounter.
With some difficulty, I can sympathize with women who get exercised
in the year 2000 about other women who could not vote in the year
1919, although it has yet to be demonstrated that such a condition
was a source of unhappiness for a majority.
It is more puzzling to experience men, especially of the white
variety, brandishing about this piece of history as once the blood-stained
sword was carried around to demonstrate guilt. A broader context
is revealed when the (white male) mayor of a state capital) in extolling
the merit of America's founders, utters the words: "Of course,
they were not perfect. They were white males. And they were landowners."
Lest the reader takes the mayor's words for a tongue-in-check-remark,
let me assure everyone that the sentences were delivered in utter
How did we get here?
How did we succumb to an unseen hand implanting stereotyped sin
lists and clearly nonsensical attitudes into American brains, once
the favorite place of residence for common sense?
All of us, over 18 and not convicted of a felony, can vote now.
We are free to do so every couple of years, but the one this time
around is promising to have far-reaching consequences. Let us take
a moment to contemplate to whom we owe the privilege, and let those
who appointed themselves to avenge past injuries - real or perceived
- go on to a more productive and fulfilling existence.