Republic hangs in balance as voting rights erode

This column won’t be published until July 13, but it’s now July 3 and Independence Day is very much on my mind. While the Fourth will have passed by the time this is printed, the time for reflection on where our nation is headed will remain.

Our country is deeply divided, so much so that some among us are questioning whether they even want a democratic republic any longer, certainly not one that relies on free and open elections. A sizable and politically powerful minority wants to tighten voter qualifications, to be more selective in who gets to cast ballots. And among those critics of democracy, there are those who would even like to see state legislatures empowered to write new rules whenever they choose, ignoring constitutional strictures, and deciding whether they like the results of elections and whether they should even have to accept those results. And they want to do this without any oversight, even from their own state court systems.

It’s been said ad infinitum that public opinion polls are the worst possible way to determine governmental policy. There’s some truth to that because Americans have short memories and can be quite fickle in their political attitudes. For example, right now we feel so burdened by the high price of gasoline and groceries that many of us will vote for anyone who says they can bring prices down, even though we know that the economic forces now at work are international and complex, and will not respond to some would-be congressman’s stump speech.

Even though Americans are compulsive and have short memories, they also have an innate core of common sense. The national turmoil over abortion is a good example. Polls consistently show that a significant majority of Americans take a moderate view of this very painful subject. They believe that women’s personal health decisions should be left to women and their health care providers. They don’t favor full-term abortion and they don’t favor full bans on the practice. It seems the public agrees with former President Bill Clinton, who declared that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”

Then, there is the vaunted constitutional right to “keep and bear arms.” New York’s century-old law barring guns outside the home certainly seems extreme to gun-loving Virginians, but are we comfortable with 18-year-olds walking down Main Street with AR-15s nestled in their arms? No, we’re not, but that’s already allowed in Virginia and may well be newly minted law of the land based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest pontification on the matter.

Americans, by overwhelming margins, disagree with the six conservative block justices now in power. The public favors reasonable gun laws, including universal background checks, an age 21 limit on any gun purchase and other common-sense steps to reduce the carnage that our love of firearms currently facilitates. By a narrower but growing margin, a majority of Americans now feels assault rifles should again be banned, as they were back when mass shootings were not so common.

Even the very complex questions concerning immigration find politicians far more radical than the general public. Gallup polls have followed public attitudes about immigration for more than half a century. During that time, politicians have become increasingly vocal in trying to push public sentiment in one direction or another, but the number of Americans who believe we allow about the right level of immigration has only dropped a few points since 1967. That’s not a majority, mind you. There are significant percentages among us who favor either decreasing or increasing the number of immigrants, but we’ve remained pretty consistent in our views, unlike those who would represent us.

The point is that Americans are, for the most part, pretty reasonable in their views of major public policy. In the long run, they can be trusted to make reasonable decisions at the polls. Certainly not every time, but on balance, they don’t get it wrong too often.

Maybe that’s what is now frightening those who want to limit the vote to a more “select” electorate. If enough Americans who want to see reasonable gun safety laws have their way, eventually there will be such legislation. And if a significant majority of Americans favors a woman’s right to make decisions concerning her own health, then eventually, the right to make those decisions will be protected.

If, however, the electorate can once again be made more “elite,” as many believed it was before women and African Americans were given the right to vote, then the rational views of average Americans might not be allowed to interfere with those who would prevent popular — and reasonable — opinions from prevailing.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with our political system, particularly political party nominating processes that encourage the selection of extreme candidates over more moderate ones. But they are structural political problems, not voter problems. Reducing the number of people who can cast ballots each November, or trying to engineer the results after they do, won’t give us better government. It will, however, go a long way toward destroying what we celebrate every July 4.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.

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