We need to talk about democracy

The election of 2020 is over. It’s probably been over weeks ago but we had to go through the closing formalities.

That being said, it seems safe to start talking about the concept of democracy without provoking the vitriolic partisanship that pervaded the election season.

Without being judgmental, the voter suppression raised an important question for a democracy. Who should vote? We may think this is a settled issue but voter suppression says this as an issue to be resolved for future elections.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 left voter qualifications with the states. At that time, states had various property and wealth requirements to guarantee that voters would have a stake in the outcomes.

Slowly, these restrictions were reduced by the states.

In the 1850s, a couple of New England states brought in literacy tests to reduce participation by the Irish immigrants flooding the East coast. Southern states picked literacy tests up to suppress the black vote, criminally administered so the illiterate whites could vote but blacks couldn’t.

By approving the Seventeenth Amendment guaranteeing blacks the right to vote, some of the authority theretofore belonging to states was usurped by the federal government. It took another 100 years of litigation to decide that former slaves could or should vote.

After another long struggle begun in 1848 in a women’s convention in Seneca Falls, NY, women finally got the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The 100th anniversary of the ratification was celebrated throughout North Dakota on Aug. 26 this year.

As we look back on 230 years of history, we can see a gradual movement toward the democratic idea that voting ought to be a universal right.

At this juncture, we should note that the most recent appointment to the Supreme Court, Amy Barrett, claims that she is going to be an “originalist” on the Court. An originalist is one who wants to return to the original meaning at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Everything adopted or passed since the Founding will be fair game.

Constitutional Scholar Dr. Theodore Pedeliski suggests that originalism is “incompatible with modern technological society and culture”, meaning that Amy will have to reconcile her philosophy with the realities of the 2020s. We can only guess what will happen to many voting laws passed since 1787.

We may have extended the right to vote to almost every adult in the United States but our net has brought in millions of people who are not equipped to participate in the democratic processes. Long lists of elected state officials, the spread of primary elections and the increase of voter issues on ballots all challenge the knowledge of the average voter.

The idea of “educating” voters has never taken root, partly because the electorate has not been interested in investing much time in political decision making. Consequently, we see random voting throughout the system

At one time, the North Dakota Constitution contained a provision authorizing the legislature to pass a law providing for a literacy test. It was never implemented. Legislators were not about to go home and tell their neighbors they had to prove they were smart enough vote.

We know that the Republicans have a larger number of people involved in public affairs than Democrats. This is saying that the problem of election education rests more with Democrats than Republicans.

The question of whether or not we have been too liberal with the right to vote has been settled. We subscribe to the idea that democracy means that everyone is equal and entitled to vote. One person, one vote.

So where do we go from here? Do we cut back the electorate or do we improve voter understanding? We need a national conversation.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.


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