Tuesday, June 06, 2006


It’s clear from the 2000 and 2004 elections that groups determined to deny citizens their right to vote were active and—for example, in Florida in 2000—successful in promoting their favorite from loser to winner. On this subject The New York Times editorialized on 30 May 2006, in part, that

“In a country that spends so much time extolling the glories of democracy, it’s amazing how many elected officials go out of their way to discourage voting. States are adopting rules that make it hard, and financially perilous, for nonpartisan groups to register new voters. They have adopted new rules for maintaining voter rolls that are likely to throw off many eligible voters, and they are imposing unnecessarily tough ID requirements.

“Florida recently reached a new low when it actually bullied the League of Women Voters into stopping its voter registration efforts in the state. The Legislature did this by adopting a law that seems intended to scare away anyone who wants to run a voter registration drive. Since registration drives are particularly important for bringing poor people, minority groups and less educated voters into the process, the law appears to be designed to keep such people from voting.

“It imposes fines of $250 for every voter registration form that a group files more than 10 days after it is collected, and $5,000 for every form that is not submitted -- even if it is because of events beyond anyone’s control, like a hurricane. The Florida League of Women Voters, which is suing to block the new rules, has decided it cannot afford to keep registering new voters in the state as it has done for 67 years. If a volunteer lost just 16 forms in a flood, or handed in a stack of forms a day late, the group's entire annual budget could be put at risk.

“In Washington, a new law prevents people from voting if the secretary of state fails to match the information on their registration form with government databases. . . . Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, introduced an amendment to require all voters to present a federally mandated photo ID. Even people who have been voting for years would need to get a new ID to vote in 2008. . . .

“These three techniques—discouraging registration drives, purging eligible voters and imposing unreasonable ID requirements—keep showing up. Colorado recently imposed criminal penalties on volunteers who slip up in registration drives. . . .” [1]

The Times returned to the subject in an editorial on 7 June 2006, citing new regulations by the Ohio Secretary of State. [2]

In a letter responding to the Times’ assertion that “the right to vote is fundamental” Representative Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. called attention to the Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore that

“The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the president of the United States unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College.”

Judging that “because it’s not a fundamental constitutional right, Congress doesn’t have the authority to create a unitary national voting system,” Jackson concludes “We need to add a voting rights amendment to the Constitution. That would give Congress the power to create a unitary federal voting system ... ” [3]

The Question

What could be done to ensure that every citizen eighteen or older may exercise the right to vote?


The 14th Amendment specifies that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States . . . .” The 15th Amendment forbids denying a citizen the vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and the 19th Amendment that the vote shall not be denied on account of gender. Similarly the 26th Amendment bars denial of the vote to anyone eighteen or older “on account of age.” [4]

A lay reader would take the 14th Amendment to provide as much protection as any person should require. The problem is that advocates of restriction cloak their aims in ostensibly reasonable purposes, even arguing—for example—that the legislation or practices they prefer are measures to ensure a fair election. Consider, for example, registration. In principle, registration increases the likelihood that there are no ‘ringers’: those voting are resident citizens. But it also requires that citizens have decided to vote and accomplished the registration procedure. There is precedent for Constitutional amendments directed explicitly at a device to prevent citizens from voting: the 24th Amendment bars “failure to pay poll tax or other tax” as a reason to deny or abridge voting in a Federal election. [4]

For a fair election three conditions must be met. The citizen eighteen or older must be identified. The voter must be associated with a location. And he or she must not be able to vote more than once. There are other desiderata: secrecy of the ballot must be assured, the vote must be tallied as cast and aggregated honestly, voters may not casually switch jurisdictions to alter results, and votes should not be for sale. There is growing appreciation that a robust, ineradicable audit trail is an absolute requirement, which any reformed system must incorporate. But we must first be sure we can do three things: identify the voter, associate voter with a jurisdiction, and permit one vote only.

Imagine that when a citizen is born or naturalized he or she is entered on a public list which shows name, date of birth, gender, a complex identifier to reduce erroneous matches, and a unique number. When the person becomes 18, or a person 18 or over is naturalized, his or her name moves automatically to the voter list. At that point every eligible citizen may vote. The citizen declares a place of residence which may, subject to some restrictions, be changed at will. To vote the citizen produces his or her unique voting number.

The Political Design Problem

It’s easy to imagine the problems and requirements which such a system would present. What are they? and how could they be addressed? Once upon a time the Social Security Number could not be used for any other purpose than Social Security identification. Look at what’s happened. How could a voting identifier be kept apart from all use for credit and tracking? And how would the transition from the world we have now to a world of presumed voting eligibility be accomplished? What about arguments concerning prior felony convictions, rules for residence, links to drivers' licenses, party identification?


[1] The New York Times, “Block the Vote.” 30 May 2006. Editorial.

[2] The New York Times, “Block the Vote, Ohio Remix.” 7 June 2006. Editorial.

See also Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, “With new legislation, Ohio Republicans plan holiday burial for American Democracy,” 6 December 2005, critically telling of legislation then before the Ohio state legislature with likely profound effects on forthcoming elections. http://www.freepress.org/departments/display/19/2005/1607ln

[3] Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr., letter to the editor of The New York Times, published 5 June 2006.

[4] Amendments 11-27 to the Constitution of the United States. National Archives.

[Political Design 2006.06.06. Expanded 2006.06.07. Post A16. http://www.learnworld.com/blog/design.html]


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