Two things are known for certain following the 2020 presidential election. One is that former president Donald Trump lost in the most secure election in history. The other is that nearly every state – depending on its political leadership – has pushed to make voting either easier or harder for its citizens. What would the Founding Fathers think of these efforts and does it even matter?
There is no shortage of bills before the legislatures in various states to make it harder for some people to vote. As of May 28, according to CNN politics, some 14 states had enacted 22 new laws making it harder for some people to vote.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, some 61 bills were moving through the legislative process in 18 states to curtail the number of legal voters. “In all, lawmakers have introduced at least 389 restrictive bills in 48 states in the 2021 legislative sessions,” the Brennan Center noted.
What does not seem to get as much press attention is that 880 bills have been introduced in 49 states that propose expanding the rights of voters. The Brennan Center reported 28 bills have already been signed into law in 14 states with some 115 moving through the process in 25 states.
Republicans and Democrats Are Engaged in a Nationwide Legislative Tug of War on Voting
If anything, these numbers seem to illustrate just how divided the country is on voting. It is clear Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a nationwide legislative tug of war in their state houses.
The Brennan Center also reports the restrictive laws make mail-in voting, voting in person, and registering to vote harder and purging voter rolls easier, although specific actions vary by state.
Efforts to improve universal suffrage include expanding early voting, making mail-in balloting easier, restoring voting rights for some citizens with criminal convictions and providing more accessibility for voters with disabilities. Two maps of the states clearly show which states are pushing voter suppression and which are expanding their citizens’ ability to vote.
It seems obvious that deep red states believe too many people are voting and deep blue states want everyone to have a say in who runs the country. The obvious question is which side would have the support of our Founding Fathers?
It may not be a surprise, but Robert Schlesinger, Managing Editor for Opinion at US News & World Report, noted that the Founding Fathers were also deeply divided on who should have a say in running the country. One camp pushed for Congress to pick the leader of the country while the other camp pushed what was touted in the Declaration of Independence, that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
As cited in History.com, George Edwards III, emeritus political science professor at Texas A&M University, insisted that “the Electoral College was never intended to be the ‘perfect’ system for picking the president.”
Some framers “feared a ‘headstrong democratic mob’ steering the country astray.” Others saw the large percentage of enslaved people in southern states and pushed the “three-fifths of a person” classification to eliminate their ability to qualify as voters. The Electoral College was a compromise, not necessarily a permanent solution.
The Electoral College Was Believed to Bypass Possible Corruption of the Voting Processes
The Electoral College was believed to bypass possible corruption of the voting processes established by the states. There is no need to get into the process mechanics or the nature of political campaigning in the early years of our republic.
Suffice it to say that, given the circumstances, the Electoral College was an innovative idea for the late 1700s and early 1800s. The point here is that the Founding Fathers wanted to ensure that at least the president was selected by voters they considered the most intelligent and capable people, the hope being that he would steer the country in the “right” direction.
Many of the problems with our election system can be traced to the fact that the Founding Fathers decided to leave it to the individual states to determine their method of voting. In theory, the “For the People Act,” currently before Congress, would fix this problem, but again, Americans are deeply divided on the issue.
While the Brennan Center claims the bill is needed as an urgent fix to repair American democracy, the Heritage Foundation decries it for “reversing the decentralization of the American election process – which is essential to the protection of our liberty and freedom.”
As of this writing, passage of the “For the People Act” is questionable. So problems will persist, and the states will continue pushing voter rights toward extremes in both directions.
One can look at the history of voting to see a great disparity in what states allowed and how it took constitutional amendments to give women and people of color voting rights. While some states embraced true democracy, it took until 1964’s Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act before actions like poll taxes and blatant acts of discrimination were outlawed. It wasn’t until 1975, when the Voting Rights Act was expanded to give non-English speakers the right to vote.
Even if more is done in the K-12 curriculum to shore up factual American history and how the government is supposed to work, adults should nevertheless educate themselves. American Military University’s Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy program exposes students to the problems of democracy and posits some solutions in Ancient Philosophy (PHIL 302) and Contemporary Philosophy (PHIL 400). Students explore how science and philosophy work together to build a better world and how they can help us gain a better understanding of what it means to be human.
The US Was Modeled More after the Roman Senate than Athenian Democracy
Philosophically, many Americans see our country as a democracy when it was founded as a republic. We were modeled more after the Roman Senate than Athenian democracy.
Some, like historian Tim Elliott, in an article published in Politico on the day many voted, saw the similarities all too striking, painting Trump as another Julius Caesar. Had the 2020 election outcome been different, the article might have been considered prophetic.
This struggle of democracy is not new. Socrates and Plato hated democracy, but no rational person would want to live in Plato’s Republic with its severe censorship and divisions into a clear caste system.
A favored metaphor was putting out to sea. A reasonable person would want a well-trained captain and crew rather than be on a ship in which anyone could take charge. Voting was a skill that needed to be taught. This is a hard argument to refute and people on both sides are fretting over what would happen if more of “them” were elected to political office. The death of Socrates is a tragic example of what can happen when the “wrong” people vote.
While this may sound like an endorsement of a republic over a democracy, it is not. Socrates may have had the answer: education.
Maybe classes on government need to occur earlier and more frequently in a child’s education. Perhaps more needs to be done to teach critical thinking skills and how engaging in collective problem solving can lead to better results. Perhaps students need to learn more factual history to avoid repeating it. Maybe the U.S. will go down in history as a Rome repeated, but it does not have to.
When we educate ourselves, we can step aboard that ship ready to take the helm in a storm.