Time has come to declare voting a universal, fundamental right

By ROBIN VANDERWALL . . .

I voted today.

I know. What’s the big deal, right? Most Americans exercise the privilege sorta like they wash their cars. Sometimes it’s important. Other times, whatever.

And that’s all it is, you know. A privilege. Yes, it’s 2016. Yes, we talk a good game about self-government and democracy. But voting in American, unlike speech and breeding, still doesn’t rank as “fundamental” in the pantheon of rights, at least not “legally” speaking.

Split hairs, if you wish. But fundamental rights are, well, fundamental. Certainly, they are subject to reasonable limitations and often meted out according to circumstances.

But voting is peculiar.   Either you have a 100% “right” to vote, or you have no vote at all. There’s no “in between.” No gray area. It’s like carrying a driver’s license. You either have one or you don’t. And your “right” to drive quickly comes into focus. Yep. Just a privilege.

The only reasonable way to consider the right to vote fundamental is to declare that it is a birthright to which every human being is guaranteed and that nothing under heaven or devised by man can separate the person from his politic.

Man is, by nature, a political animal. So said Aristotle. And what it’s our nature to be, properly ordered, is inviolably and inextricably the substance of who we are.

In four years I managed five races in Virginia. Three successfully; two not. But in each campaign there came that awkward moment. “So who you gonna vote for, Robin?”

The question was always in jest. Clearly, I’d vote for the candidate for whom I was working. Only problem was, I couldn’t.

I was registered to vote, but I was so determined to remain a North Carolinian (I mean, seriously, WHO would sign up to be Virginian??), that I refused to move my registration.

When it was time to vote, I’d go home. After all, I had a future to consider. I wanted a clean voting record. It was important to my grand plans. I wish it were possible to say why, but I’ve forgotten.

I’ve forgotten a lot of things. I almost forgot why, at some such point in my life, I was so serious about voting and participating in the election process that I actually refused to move my registration to another state.

But I will never forget what it felt like sitting in a jail cell pondering the great losses I faced: ruined reputation, loss of professional life, unfinished law degree, mom’s broken heart . . . and coming to realize that none of them was quite so painful as the thought that I might never be able to vote again.

Nothing ever made me feel as empty, as worthless, as that.

Worse still was that there really was no way of knowing if or when I would ever be allowed to vote again. I was convicted in Virginia (of a speech crime, ironically), and Virginia is known to be one of the toughest states in the nation for restoring the civil rights of the formerly incarcerated.

My home state of North Carolina is kinder, gentler – a land of humility between two mountains of conceit. Once a prisoner has finished his time and completed his probation, voila, his right to vote is automatically restored. No need for a certificate of approval to recover a right that should have never been taken away in the first place.

Yet there remained a problem for me. The trial judge sentenced me to seven years in prison and an “indeterminate” period of probation afterward. Nobody knew exactly what that meant. So the probation officer assigned to my case decided that, in her estimation, “indeterminate” meant 50 years!

This absurdity would take five years and a letter of clarification from the judge to remedy. And even then, I languished away on probation for two more years before I was finally assigned to a probation officer who thought enough was enough. I had spent more time on probation than I had in prison.

Fast forward to Ash Wednesday, 2016. With my forehead smeared black and a little bit of Jesus in my belly, I went home to do some work. After an hour or so, my phone rang. On the other end was my probation officer saying she had great news! My case was closed. I was finally off of probation.

Strange transition. Nothing really changed. As we all know, it’s the sex offender registry that ruins your life….despite it being “no more onerous” than the requirement to register one’s vehicle. I kept waiting to feel something. Anything. Joy? Excitement? Relief?

I called or emailed everyone I thought might care. There was plenty of excitement for them. And I found myself under-whelmed by the question almost all of them asked. “Does this mean you no longer have to register?”

No. It doesn’t mean that at all. In fact, the registration requirement could extend beyond the grave . . . at least the effects of it could and almost certainly will. Hundreds of years from now, people will still be able to Google me. And some poor sap who lives at any of the addresses that my mere presence has contaminated will wonder why his home gets egged.

It wasn’t until the following day that I stumbled upon a mechanism for the catharsis I was seeking. I would register to vote! That would be significant. That would be life-changing. That would help me feel like I was really an American again.

By Monday I felt safe to check the NC Board of Elections’ website. And there it was: My name. My address. My registration number. I was whole again. Or I was as whole as the law would presently allow.

I could hardly put it into words. So I just captured the screen and forwarded it to several of my closest friends. Look at me! I’ve got the franchise! All the miles marched, all the blood spilled, all the lives lost in the long campaign to secure the blessings of liberty rest upon a solitary proposition: a person is nothing and nobody without the right to cast a vote and participate in the processes of government.

And so, as we pay witness to this sordid affair of presidential campaigning, let us consider the possibility of rethinking this business of voting. Isn’t it time, once and for all, to declare it such a fundamental right of human beings that there ought be nothing save death to separate one from the other?

Robin Vander Wall

Robin is NCRSOL's president.

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