Friday, October 10, 2008

Republican Suppression of Votes in Historical Context

America was founded amidst sharply different views of the democratic process. All of our Founding Fathers agreed with that we should be free of the British crown. But one group of Founding Fathers, led variously by John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, wanted to limit the people's power, in favor of a strong central government. In contrast, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe saw tyranny, even in the form of an elected government, as the worst danger to our country, and wanted to limit the government's powers in favor of the people's, wherever possible.

The result was a profoundly mixed bag of government, with a House of Representatives elected by the people, and a Senate of appointed Senators. People voted for the electors who in turn selected the President. And the Bill of Rights was what Jefferson and his colleagues insisted upon as their price for agreeing to a strong central government.

The battle has continued, unabated, these past 200+ years. Adams and the Federalists disregarded the First Amendment in the Sedition Act of 1798, which Jefferson and the Democrats allowed to lapse when he took office in 1801. Senators are now elected by the people, but we still have an Electoral College.

Although Democratic and Republican Parties have both championed eras of reform in our history, it is pretty clear today that the Democrats are by and large more in tune with Jefferson and the Republicans with Adams.

That's why it is not surprising, but distressing, to see the Republicans doing what they can to limit and disqualify new voter registration. It's the same fear of the people the Federalists had. The Democrats are accused by Republicans of just the opposite - of giving people the right to vote when they don't meet formal qualifications.

Let's say, for argument sake, that both kinds of abuses have occurred - Republican attempts to prevent qualified voters from voting, Democratic attempts to get unqualified voters in the voting booth. Which poses the greater threat to democracy, which is the more serious abuse?

My guess is Thomas Jefferson would have said, in a democracy, err of the side of the people - when in doubt, let the people vote. I hope Democrats vigorously pursue this ideal, and don't let Republicans get away with voter suppression. We've come a long, long way in democratizing our country since 1789. Poor people, African-Americans, and women now have the right to vote. The election of 2008 is not the time to stop or go backward.
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