Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Right To Vote And The Right To Political Speech

The Supreme Court is hearing the case regarding Indiana's voter ID law, and the NYT's Editorial Observer feels confused. Earlier this year the Supremes struck down the section of the McCain Feingold campaign financing bill that limited 527's attack ads in the last couple days of an election and shows signs of upholding Indiana's law. Adam Cohen notes that when it comes to corporate and wealth speech the Court rules the Constitution “requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it,” and yet in a case where no evident pattern of voter fraud exists John Roberts says it is no great concern since the trip is not “very far” to travel 17 miles by bus to a clerks office to fight over whether a vote is valid.

No, in John's world 17 miles isn't much, and anyhow, nobody would challenge his vote. The right to vote has been under sustained attack since 2000 in Republican dominated states and, once BushCo got the Justice Dept straightened out, at the Federal level. These are the same people who cheer lead foreign democracy, trying hard to eradicate it at home. Be under no illusion that I think restrictions on speech regarding money are in danger - or should be. But also understand that efforts to disenfranchise voters infuriate me no end. There is little doubt that as groups both the young and the poor have rotten rates of participation, any action to further discourage their participation means that this government will less reflect the reality of its citizenry than it does now.

The domination of political discourse by corporate interests and wealth is largely the fault of the citizenry, it takes a desperate level of poverty to not be able to afford a $20 political contribution. That $20-200 contribution made by the percentage who do not now contribute anything would equalize or overwhelm most other sources. It is the one way an ordinary citizen can make their political will felt - if they avail themselves of it. In Oregon you get a straight up tax credit matching up to $50 in political contributions. Even if you're pretty poor, and you pay at least $50 in state income taxes, you can send it to the political cause of you choice instead of the State, it's gone either way... The truly egalitarian part of it is that the number is that low, the state is encouraging lesser incomes to participate rather than rewarding participation by wealth. The point is that it is not an action of the government that creates speech primarily for the wealthy, it is abdication by the rest of us. Not so with voter disenfranchisement, that is a direct action of the state.

The idea that the state needs more power and reach is ludicrous. The citizen, minus great personal wealth, is already out gunned and over manned by the state. The citizen does not have fleets of lawyers and troops of investigators, he has himself. The mechanics of voting are already in the state's hands and the advantage lies with the state's incumbents, the citizen is at the lowest level of power, despite all the rhetoric denying it. There are - or were - some hamstringing qualifiers on the state, the BOR and following Amendments along with some Constitutional directives. For the Supreme Court to question the right to an unencumbered vote, much less rule against it is elitism at its very worst and contrary to the spirit of democracy of the latter half of the 20th Century. It is also counter to the need for a government reflective of its own citizenry, one of the overarching arguments for the Revolution. The tenor of the questions posed by the Court make me fearful for our State.

1 comment:

Zak J. said...

I couldn't agree more--it's our own damn fault. I work with a great number of people in their late 20s & early 30s who are "coming of age," so to speech. In talking with them, just about zero percent have ever given a dime to a political campaign, let alone taken an active role (phone banking & such.) Seeing political and civic engagement should be seen as part of being a citizen and an adult; but it isn't.

We all need to keep reaching out to the uninvolved--invite them to house parties, speeches, rallies, campaigns--and encourage them to vote with dollars as it is appropriate. It's like taking a non-shooter to a gun range for the first time; the often resulting conversion can be surprising and gratifying for both of you.