I came across an article the other day which contained some remarks by conservative radio host, Bryan Fischer:
“You know back in the day, the colonial period, you had to be a landowner, a property owner, to be eligible to vote – and I don’t think that’s a bad idea. And the reason is very simple: if somebody owns property in a community, they’re vested in the community. If they’re renters, they’re going to be up and gone. They could leave the next day. They have no tie to the community; they’ve got no long-term investment in the community.Pretty amazing stuff, huh? If he had his way, he'd disenfranchise millions of his fellow Americans with the stroke of a pen, amendments to the Constitution be damned.
“But somebody that owns property, he cares, now, he cares about the public policies that manage that community because it’s going to affect his property; it’s going to affect the use of his property; it’s going to affect the value of his property; it’s going to affect what he’s able to do with his property; it’s going to affect his family who lives on that property. He’s vested. So he’s going to have a real interest in seeing what kind of policies are adopted.
“But see, people that are not property owners, it’s like people that pay no taxes – they’ve got no skin in the game. They don’t care about the same things that somebody does who is rooted in the community.”
For those who might not have heard of Fischer, he's a wingnut, for sure, but he has more credibility among conservatives than you might think. He's Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association (AFA) and his radio program, Focal Point on American Family Radio, is mainstream enough in conservative circles for numerous Republican members of Congress to have appeared on it.
I suspect, particularly among wealthy conservatives, Fischer's view on voting rights is not that uncommon. Not frequently voiced, but not that rare. And I wouldn't be surprised if that kind of thinking is part of what's behind the conservative push to restrict voting rights.
Fischer is right about one thing. Voting was a very different sort of thing in colonial America. Generally speaking, you had to be white, male, and own real estate, but there was a lot of variation from place to place, state to state. Women with property could vote in some places. Some states allowed free African-Americans to vote. Ownership of property which could command a certain amount of annual rent, or for which the owner had to pay a certain amount in taxes, was a common requirement though.
Actually, democracy as we think of it today was not that highly valued then. The worry was that too much participation by the governed would lead to chaos and possibly mob rule. There were fewer elections and more appointed positions. Allowing widespread suffrage was viewed as unwise, if not outright dangerous.
John Adams, founding father and later president, wrote in 1776:
"Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level."English jurist William Blackstone expressed a similar fear when he wrote in the 1700s:
"The true reason of requiring any qualification, with regard to property, in voters, is to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. If these persons had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some undue influence or other. This would give a great, an artful, or a wealthy man, a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty."I think it's exactly this sort of antiquated, condescending thinking which today's upper class conservatives find appealing.
Personally, I reject the elitist notion that property ownership, and by extension, wealth, should be a requirement for suffrage. Wealth is a poor measure of the quality of a person. All too often, great wealth is actually an indicator of defective character, a sign that one is willing to take advantage of others for personal gain.
Blackstone does, though, touch upon something worthy of consideration. For a democratic system to work well for everyone, the electorate has to have the time and desire to inform itself about issues and candidates. Today, with so many working so many hours just to survive, far too many are doing fly-bys and getting swayed by misleading sound bites seen on TV or in other media. This has created exactly the opportunity for "a great, an artful, or a wealthy man" which Blackstone warned about -- think the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and others of their ilk.
In my opinion, if we're serious about bringing our democracy back from the edge of the abyss over which it's teetering today, we need to do a number of things:
* Get the excessive money out of our electoral process. This means a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. No, corporations are not people. It also means public funding of elections to level the playing field for candidates in their outreach to voters. SuperPACS need to go.
* Voting needs to be made a legal requirement for all citizens. And it should be enforced. Australia did it. We should, too.
* Election days need to be treated as public holidays. All employers should be required to pay their employees for those days just like any other paid holiday. In truth, in a democracy, there's no day more important than an election day. It should be treated as a day to honor and celebrate one of our most fundamental rights.
* More emphasis on voter responsibility to stay informed. We have the right to vote and this carries with it the responsibility to educate ourselves so we can make informed choices in the polling booth. Every citizen should view this as a solemn duty. It should be a high priority for our education system to instill the utmost respect for this duty in our youth.
* Give voters time to educate themselves. If we're going to ask the electorate to take responsibility for educating themselves about issues and candidates, we must make a conscious decision as a society to give them the opportunity to do so. We have the concept of time off from work for illness and vacation. Surely an informed electorate is just as important and deserves formal recognition as a reason for paid time off.
* Hold the media and politicians more accountable for presenting factual information. There are few things more damaging to the integrity of a democracy than deliberately misinforming the electorate. The penalties for this should match the seriousness of the crime. This goes for political ads as well as news. An identifiable pattern of telling half-truths or outright lying should disqualify a politician from seeking or holding public office.
Okay, I'll get off my soap box now.