Constitution Day, Voting Rights, and ‘We the People’

by Elizabeth Wydra

September 17th is Constitution and Citizenship Day, marking the day 225 years ago when our Founding charter was signed in Philadelphia and presented to “We the People” for ratification.  As Yale Law Professor Akhil Amar has eloquently explained, never before in world history had a government charter been ratified by the people themselves.  Calling our constitutional moment in 1787 the hinge of modern democratic history, Prof. Amar notes that the Founding generation took important steps to increase the number of eligible voters in the ratification process, with many states waiving voting restrictions (such as property requirements) and some allowing African Americans to vote for convention delegates.

However advanced this expanded voting pool may have been during the 18th century; through a modern lens it is obviously profoundly flawed and restrictive.  Fortunately, after declaring that “We the People” would be the ones to establish and ordain the Constitution, the preamble also boldly states our intention to “create a more perfect union.”  The goal was not just to create something “more perfect” than what Americans had seen before — whether it be the tyranny of the British crown or the dysfunction of the Articles of Confederation — but to establish a Union that was itself perfectible across history.  Article V, authorizing Amendments, made it clear that the 1787 Constitution was not an end, but a beginning.  And perhaps nowhere is that arc of constitutional progress seen more plainly than in the story of suffrage.

Over the past two centuries, America has moved ever closer to its full promise of equal citizenship and inalienable rights. “We the People” have poured precious blood, sweat, and treasure into reform efforts to expand the franchise and make our democracy more inclusive, using the Article V amendment process to add six Voting Rights Amendments to our Constitution. These Amendments fundamentally changed the idea and practice of citizenship in America — guaranteeing Americans the right to vote free from discrimination on the basis of race or sex, outlawing poll taxes in federal elections, giving ordinary Americans the right to elect U.S. Senators, allowing the citizens of our Nation’s capital to vote for President, and extending the right to vote to 18-year-olds. Written across the very face of our Constitution is a story of hard-won progress toward what President Abraham Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

As we celebrate the 225th birthday of our Constitution, however, the right to vote is under attack.  The Supreme Court is poised to take up a case that seeks to strike down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act.  State voter ID laws threaten to disenfranchise nearly 1 million young, minority voters, among others.  And as Senator Patrick Leahy recently explained, Citizens United has dramatically altered the balance of our democracy by finding new rights for corporations to use big-business profits to influence elections.

Looking back on our Constitution’s 225-year progress affirms that the arc of history does bend toward justice.  But in the face of sustained attacks on the right to vote — a right that is so crucial because it is preservative of all other rights — there is cause for serious concern.  “We the People” should recommit to the Preamble’s ideal of an ever more perfect union, one birthed in an unprecedented display of democracy and sustained by an ever more inclusive polity.  It’s hard to imagine a better gift for the Constitution on its birthday.

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