The Billings Outpost

Voting for Americans is a right, not a privilege



There is a Legislative Referendum, LR 126, on this year’s ballot that is intended to restrict the time that citizens who are eligible to vote may register to vote. Currently citizens can register up to, and including, election day. LR 126 would roll that back to the Friday before the election.

The arguments for LR 126 seem shallow at best. According to proponents, cutting off registration three days before an election will make it easier for election administrators to do their job, will save time when waiting in line to vote, and will make it faster to tally the vote.

The curt truth is that elections are not run for the benefit of election administrators; they are run for the citizen, and the election administrator works for the citizen. The purpose of democracy is not to make the jobs of bureaucrats easier, quite the opposite, in fact.

The issue of whether or not to restrict the time when someone can register to vote can be decided by a simple test: Is voting a privilege or is it a right?

If it is a privilege, then any argument can be used to restrict a person’s ability to vote, and used they have been. Registration has been denied to citizens who could not demonstrate the ability to read and write, or correctly answer questions about American history, or pay a fee to vote. These tactics were all used in the not too distant past to disenfranchise blacks and others. They are now unconstitutional.

If voting is a right, and registering is a prerequisite to exercising that right, then there is no argument that can be used to limit the opportunity to register to vote.

Throughout American history the voting franchise has been expanded: from men of property to all male citizens, to men of all races, to all female citizens, and to citizens over the age of 18. Most of these expansions, except for the last, have been controversial and won sometimes at great personal cost, including loss of life.

Each one of these expansions is enforced by amendments to the Constitution of the United States, which have the same force of law as any clause in the original, un-amended document, just like the Second Amendment.

And each amendment expanding the vote - the 14th (to naturalized citizens), the 15th (to men of all races), the 19th (to women), the 24th (outlaws the poll tax), and the 26th (to everyone over 18 years of age) - contains the phrase, ‘the right to vote.” You can look it up.

So if it is a right, as the Constitution says five times, should it be restricted or have conditions put upon it any more than, say, the Right to Bear Arms?

In Montana we do restrict the right of certain individuals to bear arms; children and incarcerated felons are not allowed to purchase or posses firearms. We also restrict the right to vote of children and incarcerated felons.

But for those in Montana who may legally possess firearms there are not, and should not be, time restrictions on gun ownership.

For those who are eligible to vote, there are also no time restrictions on exercising that right. But there will be if LR 126 passes.

Some states have restricted the right to gun ownership by imposing a “cooling off” period between the purchase of a gun and taking possession of the weapon, all this for the purported reason of conducting background checks and preventing impulsive acts like suicide or violence following a heated argument.

Do voters need a cooling off period to contemplate the wisdom of registering to vote before actually voting? Of course not, and that said, what is the point of restricting the right to vote by imposing a time limit on registration? Making life easier for bureaucrats is not sufficient reason to limit our constitutional rights.

Our voting registration laws and our gun laws are working well, and do not need restrictions placed upon them.

Jim Elliott is a former state senator who represented Mineral, Sanders, and parts of Lincoln and Missoula Counties.

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 October 2014 14:56

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