This nation’s overloaded politisphere of dialogue is far too often populated with terms and phrases that are loosely employed or used interchangeably, sometimes hyperbolically. Rebellion and revolution are examples, sometimes accompanied by terrorist, insurrectionist, or tourist. Thus, while Nathaniel Bacon’s efforts in 1675 to overthrow the Virginia colony’s ruling establishment is characterized as a “rebellion,” the insurrection by the 13 colonies is generally regarded as a “revolution.” In like manner, Nat Turner’s brief attempt to lead slaves to freedom in 1831 is deemed a rebellion.
These denotations are largely generally accepted as established propositions of fact or truth. They tend to endure without examination or question. The term “voting rights” suffers from a similar fashion of nonchalance or casualness.
Academically and historically, voting is a privilege in the United States and was so regarded in ancient Greece and Rome as well. The characteristics of a right applying to all humans are universality; inalienability and immutability; indivisibility and interrelatedness; and inherence at birth. Some add that such characteristics include protection in courts and enforceability. Citizenship in a jurisdiction is one of the most common conditions required to vote.
By a four-to-one margin, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, perceive voting as a fundamental right not to be restricted. At the same time, those who describe themselves as conservative at a rate of 67% view voting as a privilege subject to limitations.
A recent Pew Research poll (July 7, 2021) found that by a four-to-one margin, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, perceive voting as a fundamental right not to be restricted. At the same time, those who describe themselves as conservative at a rate of 67% view voting as a privilege subject to limitations. These differences appear despite the existence of a multitude of legislation at the federal and state levels adverting to voting rights.
Curiously, the term does not appear in the US Constitution. In that document, the framers minimally provided (Art. I, Sec. 4):
The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.
The laissez faire language, except for subsequent amendments, created the loopholes for states to avoid the “all men are created equal” principle of the Declaration of Independence to enact racial codes, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, and other restrictive voting conditions.
US history is littered with voting limitations applied to people of color, gender, economic station, residence, and age. For example, even today, no US citizen under the age of 18 is eligible to vote in federal elections. In 48 states, felons are barred from voting, as well as some adjudged mentally incompetent. Property ownership and poll taxes disenfranchised citizens in earlier times and suffrage for women was not available until 1920.
As the contemporary debate concerning the efforts of some states to implement voting restrictions advances, the undercurrent conflict circles around the conflict between voting right and voting privilege. . . . As a matter of jurisprudence, however, many privileges once granted by a government entity cannot be rescinded without a judicial hearing, e.g., Social Security benefits. In this way, some privileges are deemed so essential and necessary that they rise to the level of inalienability unless due process is afforded. It may be the case that the voting privilege in our nation has evolved into a right, however limited by age.
As the contemporary debate concerning the efforts of some states to implement voting restrictions advances, the undercurrent conflict circles around the difference between voting right and voting privilege. Currently, some states are seeking to limit mail-in and early voting as well as voting on weekends or the use of “drop boxes” in populated areas. These novel limitations conflict with the recent arc of state efforts to increase voter turnout and participation, including that of the GOP prior to the 2020 election. At the same time, SCOTUS has upheld state legislation on the basis of concerns about voting fraud even where none is demonstrated.
On the other hand, recent SCOTUS decisions (Shelby County v. Holder) have deemed federal procedures to pre-clear voting law changes under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be moot, holding such restrictions as no longer pertinent.
Then there is other Constitutional content that pertains to the “right-privilege” issue. Article IV, Sec. 2 states, “The citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities in the several states.” The Fourteenth Amendment proclaims, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” If these provisions were unclear, the Fifteenth Amendment appears obvious:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be dened or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Thus, whether voting is argued as a right or a privilege, its station in the protection of the law is unequivocal.
Nonetheless, as a practical matter, every advocate of enhanced voting processes and procedures has the obligation to be aware of distinctions between the two concepts in order to develop countermeasures against the newest versions of voter restrictions. Acknowledgment that at its core voting may be deemed a privilege strengthens strategies and tactics for ensuring the success of proponents of increased voter turnout and participation.