Voting: A Right, A Privilege, or A Responsibility?

by Dean Searcy, Right to Vote Blog // Published April 20, 2011
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When Americans talk about their democracy, they typically emphasize the importance of the right to vote. But the fact is that, unlike other democratic rights protected in the First Amendment, voting rights do not have clear constitutional protections. State legislatures have the right to appoint electors in presidential races without holding elections, for example, and states can enact a variety of policies that directly or indirectly infringe on suffrage rights. While strengthening voting rights in the Constitution would seem like a logical step, there's a potential political barrier: confusion about the meaning of "right."

This essay invites readers to question whether the ability to vote should be a right, a privilege, or a responsibility. For the ease of readership, I will define the necessary terms.

  1. Privilege (n): An immunity or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantaged of most.
  2. Right (n): That which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, or moral principles.
  3. Responsibility (n): Being answerable or accountable for something within one's power, control, or management.

At first glance, it's easy to view these terms as mutually exclusive. From their definitions, we can see that what is a "privilege" cannot be a right since rights are enjoyed by everyone, while a privilege is reserved for a select group. Likewise, it's impossible for an individual to take on the burden of responsibility if they lack to the right to vote in the first place.

Despite this initial judgment, many people view the ability to vote as all three simultaneously and weigh "right" after "privilege" or "responsibility." For example, many believe the ability to vote is a privilege granted to today's eligible voters by those who fought for it in the past either through war, grassroots movements, or legislative battles. These struggles have kept the United States as an independent nation and granted us the right to vote with the passage of the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th amendment, in addition to the legislative victory of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From this perspective, it is a privilege to live in the United States, standing on the shoulders of these past giants, and we have a responsibility to vote because it honors those who have put their lives on the line to protect it.

Indeed a study conducted in 2006 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found far most participants in a series of focus groups saw voting as a responsibility or a privilege more than as a right. Many categorized voting primarily as a privilege because previous generations had fought for it and other countries don't enjoy the same freedom. The plurality of participants saw it primarily as a responsibility because it highlights the importance of choosing the government. Many of these participants chose not to classify it primarily as a "right" because the word "right" suggested to them a sense of entitlement.

Many participants also believed that fraud was a bigger problem than disenfranchisement. Although these beliefs are not based in reality (proven cases of voter fraud are miniscule compared to clear cases of denial of suffrage), they say something very important about the general mindset of American voters. When it comes to voting, "right" is a dangerous word since it suggests the ability to vote has simply been given to you without a fight -- and things that can make voting harder but prevent fraud like voter registration laws, requirements for photo identification and inconvenient polling places are minor compared to the sacrifices of past generations. In this mindset, anyone who might not vote due to such barriers is not accepting responsibility for how important it is and not recognizing what a privilege it is to have the right to vote.

As is obvious from the Peter Hart study, a common misconception is the word "right" denoting a sense of entitlement. People who hold this view shy away from considering the ability to vote a right because it suggests it has simply been given to us without historical struggles, thereby demeaning the individuals who have laid their lives on the line to forge and preserve our freedoms.

From a rational perspective, this is shortsighted when one considers the nature of the United States Bill of Rights, a document outlining the protected rights an individual enjoys as a U.S. citizen. The first ten amendments to the Constitution were written and ratified as the Bill of Rights to ensure that government wouldn't encroach on certain fundamental rights, including but not limited to such cornerstones of representative democracy as: free speech, free press, free religion, and free assembly. No one denies that we fought for these rights during the Revolutionary War, yet they were still called "rights" because of their value as the fundamental fabric of our democracy. With the ability to exercise our voice and elect our representatives being today recognized as another cornerstone of a healthy democracy, why not apply this same logic to voting?

How one views voting rights is clearly a moral judgment. By asking ourselves if the ability to vote should be a privilege, right, or responsibility, we ask ourselves, "what is the true nature of democracy" and "what is ultimately just." Certain governments have taken the moral judgment into their hands and have taken actions to help define the ability to vote into one of these three categorizes. Below are a few considerations:

  1. State policies accepting voting as a "privilege" more than "right": United States' State legislatures often act on the sense of voting being more a privilege than a right. It is painfully obvious, when we examine cases of permanent disenfranchisement of citizens with felony convictions, superfluous voter identification requirements and complex voter registration laws, that voting is often viewed as a privilege to be enjoyed by "worthy" people and not by others. Without uniform election laws, patch-work election rules and regulations varying state-by-state will continue to disenfranchise millions of voters countrywide (particularly those who have committed a felony in the past, don't possess government issued identification, or lack a fixed residence, but more broadly many people who lose their right due to our general mode of running elections on the cheap).
  2. "Responsibility" has more than one meaning: Nations like Australia that have instituted mandatory voting base their policy on voting being a responsibility of all eligible voters. Yet in many Americans' definition of "responsibility, such a requirement would lead "irresponsible" people to vote who did not care enough about voting to go to the polls without fear of a fine.
  3. An international perspective on voting as a right: In 2005, the European Court on Human Rights found that the United Kingdom had breached the human rights of prisoners by denying them the vote, ruling that British policies were disenfranchising 80,000 incarcerated British citizens. The Human Right Act of 1998, which had incorporated most of the European Convention on Human rights into British law, established the right to vote as an essential right of all humans. This ruling was grounded in voting as a right, not a privilege, but the British government has fought against implementing the ruling despite the 1998 law

Here at FairVote, we do a lot of work on voting rights. Whether it is to help ensure each vote is counted equally, each voter has a sufficient opportunity to exercise their right to vote, and whether voters have meaningful choices and a fair chance to win representation, FairVote sees voting as a fundamental right of citizenship equal to our First Amendment freedoms in its importance for sustaining representative democracy

Even though the United States Constitution has several amendments which stop voter discrimination, it lacks a sufficient base to guarantee voting as a right. To overcome the states' view of voting as a privilege, we support the right to vote explicitly enshrined in a Constitutional amendment (H.J.RES.28), a bill currently sponsored by Representative Jessie Jackson. Jr. Only with its passage -- or passage of a bill more simply affirming voting as a right - can voting truly be considered a right rather than a privilege.

This isn't to say we are ungrateful. It is undoubtedly a privilege to live in the United State and we are right to honor the men and women who made our democracy what it is today. We all enjoy the benefits and freedoms of living in a liberalized democracy which encourages us to exercise our voice and be an active citizen. While it is a privilege to live in the United States, FairVote believes the ability to vote should be enshrined as a right within the U.S. Constitution to uphold suffrage rights for all citizens - both for preventing fraud and prohibiting disenfranchisement of voters who would, in the absence of restrictive registration/administrative rules, be eligible.

So we will end where we started, addressing the question, "is the ability to vote more of a right, a privilege, or a responsibility?" One's answer forces you to make a moral judgment and think about the nature of our democracy. Should the ability to vote be considered a privilege, thereby allowing disenfranchisement of certain groups of voters, or a right, granted to as many people as legally possible? For us, the answer is clear: respect for every vote and every voice means that while we honor voting and our nation's heroes, we oppose the government having the power to infringe upon our fundamental right to elect our representatives and exercise our voice through our vote.