Which constitutional right is the most important? Some may think it is "freedom of speech" or "free exercise" of religion. Others may think it's "the right to keep and bear arms," while others might argue that it’s the guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures," (at least if you’re a lawyer).
But which right appears most often in the Constitution?
It's "the right to vote."
Interestingly, it appears in the Constitution five times (in the 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments), but it doesn’t say anywhere that "All individuals have the right to vote." These Amendments simply rule out specific limitations on "the right to vote." What that lack of inclusivity leaves in its wake is a gray area open to interpretation by both self-serving party-first politicians and the Supreme Court. Throughout this country’s relatively short history, a citizen’s right to vote has expanded and contracted. Clearly, we have entered a period of contraction due to the simultaneous destructive waves of voter ID laws and closures of voting locations, causing individuals to needlessly stand in long lines for hours on end.
This past Homecoming Day at my school, I set up a table like I had the previous year trying to get the upcoming high school graduates registered to vote. Whether their political views agree with mine or not, I feel strongly that everyone should have the ability to vote in elections if they so choose. The right to vote is so incredibly powerful that subgroups of American society fought for decades for that right to be extended to them.
The outcome of my voter registration drive was stunning. Only fourteen students registered that day, compared to almost three times that number last year. When I asked students why they didn’t want to register to vote, their answers were always the same--either, “I don’t care about politics,” or “What’s the point? One vote won’t make a difference, anyway.” Perhaps they need to go back and study the 2000 presidential election--the year after which many of these students were born. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing--especially from female students. I reminded them about the 19th Amendment, and that women had fought for decades to earn that right, but my plea fell on deaf ears. They simply didn’t care enough about their own futures to spend five minutes completing a voter registration card. In their own words, “Whatever happens, will happen.”
Not North Korea, not neo-Nazis, and certainly not Kolin Kaepernick, but voter apathy is the greatest threat to our democracy. In the last presidential election, if “Did Not Vote” had been a candidate, it would have won in a landslide (http://brilliantmaps.com/did-not-vote/). Granted, Americans were largely luke-warm to both candidates which resulted in neither of them getting more than 50% of the vote nationwide. The unfortunate reality is that low voter turnout is nothing new and is getting substantially worse.
How did we get here? Why don’t young people want to register to vote?
I think it’s clear that the teenagers I talked to during Homecoming Day are reflecting the attitudes of voters nationwide, and of the ones they see at home. It doesn’t help that it’s substantially more difficult to vote than it should be. It doesn’t help that, in their lifetimes, the electoral college has twice elected a different president than the popular vote. It further doesn’t help that America has become an oligarchy.
I wish I could put a positive spin on this and say that there’s an easy solution to this problem, but there simply isn’t one. Our democracy is dying, and voter apathy is ensuring that it dies even more painfully and swiftly. We are turning away from the Constitution, from the basis of self-government, and from the standards of human rights Americans have died trying to hypocritically impose on the rest of the world.