Democracy is the worst form of government, except for the others that have been tried.
-- Winston Churchill
The right to vote in the United States, has evolved over the past couple centuries. Women were initially denied the vote as were non-property owners, non-whites, and slaves. Senators were appointed by state legislatures. All of these things are behind us. And yet we have a long, long way to go.
The problem begins with how we vote for president. When we vote for president, we use a peculiar device called “the electoral college.” Under this system, my vote in New York counts a good deal less than it does if I lived in Wyoming, say. Why? It works like this. When we vote, the results aren't simply tallied on a “one person, one vote” basis. We use a device called the “electoral college.” Under this system, each state is allocated a certain number of “electors.” The number of electors is determined by the number of seats your state has in congress: two senators, plus all of your state's representatives in the house. Now, the number of senators is fixed, always and forever. Representation in the house is determined by the census (the constitution is endearingly vague about just how the census should be used to make this determination). But the states vary greatly in population (more than the people who wrote the constitution anticipated, I suspect), and each state is guaranteed at least two senators. For instance, as a New Yorker my vote counts a lot less than it would if I voted in, say, Wyoming. Because New York has 19.57 million people and 29 electors. Wyoming has a population of 576,412 and 3 electors. A voter in Wyoming as 3.5 times the voting power of a New York voter. Sound unfair to you? Yeah, me too.
But it gets worse. Imagine that some states were allowed themselves – essentially by fiat – a certain number of “ghost” people: visible to the census (and therefore helping inflate the number of electors) but unable to vote. The thing is, you don't really have to imagine it, because it's been with us – in one form or another – since our country's inception. In the beginning, a large number of residents in various states were unable to vote, even though they were counted in the census. That's significant, because it means that the remaining population in that particular state would have that much more power. For a contrived example: suppose you live in a state with one woman, one non-white voter, one non-property owner, and on eligible voter – call him Joe. Your state gets two senators, plus a certain number of representatives proportional to the population. Say four, making a total of six representatives. The state next door also has four people, but they're all eligible to vote. They also get six representatives. But: Joe's vote counts 1.5 times as much as yours. Why? Because, effectively, he's voting on behalf of the disenfranchised population in his state. Pretty darn unfair if you ask me!
Now, we've come a long way since we started. We've enfranchised property owners, non-whites, women, Native Americans, people under 21. All of these populations are counted for the purposes of the census, and therefore for electoral apportionment. But there are still some troubling holdouts. One of the obvious ones is felons, and more troublesome still, ex-felons (who have “paid their debt to society.”) Florida is one of the states which disenfranchises its more than 1.5 million or so felons and ex-felons. It has fewer than 15 million eligible voters. That's more than 10% of its voters, disenfranchised. But Florida still gets to count all of those felons for its census. The remaining voters get to vote on behalf of the felon population. Their vote counts more than it would if felons were allowed to vote, and compounds the problem with the electoral college system even more. The discrepancy is even more alarming when you consider how many people are convicted of felonies for relatively minor things, or wrongly convicted. And unlike financial loss associated with wrongful conviction, there's no way to turn back time on a missed election. Indeed one has to wonder whether, say, some of our drug laws would be so draconian were it not for widespread felon disenfranchisement.
But my problem with all of these restrictions on voting for felons is deeper than the simple mathematical issue outlined above. We live in a world where, amazingly, not everyone else thinks like we do. It's amazing, because we're so similar in so many other ways: we're born, we live, we die. We get hungry, sick, tired, happy, sad – in rather predictable ways. Why wouldn't others think as we do? At the risk of oversimplifying, I think it's fair to say that most of us wrestle with this question and ultimately settle on the idea that those who disagree with us are somehow...deficient. Either they're ignorant (“dumb”); or they're morally questionable (“evil”); or they're intellectually disabled (“stupid” or “crazy”). My point is that every population that either is or has been disenfranchised throughout our country's history has fallen into one of these standard categories of “Why don't these people agree with me?” Slaves? Too stupid. Women? Ignorant. Younger than 21? Ignorant. To this day, some states require approval from a judge for the mentally retarded to be allowed to vote. I find that pretty sickening. And felons are a stand-in for the “evil” category.
Yes, we live in a world where others disagree with us. Right now, someone is reading this essay thinking, “What a load of tripe!” and I'm at a loss for why you can't see it my way after this argument I've advanced. And if we met, I'd probably either like you or dislike you. If I dislike you, I'll probably put you in the “evil” category and if I like you I might put you in the “crazy” or “stupid” or “ignorant” category. But I accept Winston Churchill's quote, given above, and I can't very well claim to be a (small “d”) democrat while inventing reasons that those who disagree with me shouldn't vote.
Which brings me to a really radical idea. Radical in the etymological sense: of or pertaining to roots. An idea which would, in my mind, get to the root of a number of social problems. Children are not allowed to vote – because they fall into the “ignorant” category. Imagine – a la John Lennon – a world in which children were allowed to vote, at the age of say, six. I'm not kidding. Would they be inclined to not want their older family members to go to war? Would there be a shift in environmental policies? Would they care more about jobs programs? About school lunches? About their two dads being allowed to marry? Who knows? Imagine.