Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

A Silver Lining From the Chief Justice


John Burbank, EOI Executive Director

There is a jewel in the crown of Chief Justice Roberts’ binding opinion that opens the flood gates for the wealthy to further fund political campaigns. It is jewel that people who believe in democracy (as opposed to plutocracy) should seize forthrightly: the right to vote.

Chief Justice Roberts began his decision in the landmark McCutcheon case with the declaration that “(t)here is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” If we ignore that statement and just focus on the outcomes of the particular campaign financing case, then we have lost both the battle and the war. But if we use that declaration to enable voting, then the plutocrats will have won the battle, but a democratic polity can win the political war for democracy.

We can make this phrase, “(t)here is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” our 21st century equivalent to the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, you can argue that Roberts’ declaration flows directly from Jefferson’s declaration, which states that ” all men are created equal, that they are endowed… with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” So let’s forget about the authors, an arch-conservative and a slave-holder, and focus on the values embodied in these few words.

If the right to participate in electing our political leaders is indeed the most basic right in America, then we must ensure that every American can exercise that right.

As legislatures make it harder for people to vote, they violate that right. If they close down early voting or voting on weekends, they stomp on the right to elect our political leaders. If they require voter verification such as birth certificates, they deny the right to elect our political leaders to those who can’t come up with the necessary documentation. If they say that a person can’t vote because he is not registered to vote, and they don’t allow registration for voting on voting day, then that person is barred from exercising her most basic right. If they prevent currently or past convicted citizens from voting, they are denying them most basic right of being an American.

With voting by mail, as in our state of Washington, we avoid many of the barriers to voting set up elsewhere, which were put in place to bar African Americans, Latinos, low income and low wage citizens from voting.

But it is not all peaches and cream in Washington state. If you haven’t registered to vote eight days before an election in our state, and you want to exercise your franchise on election day, you can’t. If you are in prison or in community custody, you can’t vote. If you fail to make monthly payments for court-ordered legal financial obligations (try that when you have lost your job), your right to vote can be taken away.

And yet, Chief Justice Roberts declares, “(t)here is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

It is time for our political leaders to bring our laws up to this standard. There is plenty of work to do across this great country in the march toward democracy. The Chief Justice says so. Let’s hold him to his word.

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