The Philodemic Society ushered in a new year of stimulating debates with a timely yet timeless question, Resolved: Voting is a right, not a privilege. As political dissidents from Egypt to Syria make headlines with their passionate appeals for freedom and liberty from tyrannical governments, it’s worth reflecting upon the value of being able to have a say in how one’s government is run through the ballot box, especially since consistently low turnout indicates that voting is one of the prerogatives most taken for granted by American citizens.
Affirming the resolution, Ms. Colleen Wood (SFS ’14) of Minnesota professed that on her extensive travels through Turkey and Eastern Europe, she met protesters from all walks of life who chose to fight for the power to vote — and yet, she did not meet a single person who said they would risk their lives for a privilege. To relegate voting to the status of a privilege fails to capture its value in people’s hearts. Ms. Wood asserted that the negation proposes a dangerous world, for if voting is a privilege, then it becomes a conditional entitlement to be endowed arbitrarily by the state. She warned, “When you have a society in which government is determined by a select few, you run the risk of a minority oppressing the rest.” The right to vote, she concluded, is a fundamental pillar of the American political structure.
On the negation, Ms. Katie Bolas (SFS ’15) of Ohio began her argument by establishing that voting is not a right in the status quo. In Alexander v. Mineta (2000), the Supreme Court ruled that voting is not an unconditional right equally extended to all American citizens, but rather that state legislatures can determine “qualified voters” as long as they do so without provable bias. Felons and children, for example, are firmly protected by the Constitution but cannot vote. Ms. Bolas contended that to affirm voting as a right equally extended to all citizens would be a radical change from the status quo, a departure from the principles wisely established by our Founding Fathers. She placed the burden on the affirmation to show why existing limitations on the scope of voting must be uprooted; otherwise, negate to keep voting in its current place.
Mr. Dulik (SFS ’13) commenced the floor speeches with a bang by arguing that our Founding Fathers, while certainly respectable, were also white slave-holding aristocratic men whose biases should not set the social standards of today. He passionately appealed for the Society to affirm the right to vote as a symbol of equality amongst humanity: “Tonight’s debate is not a political question, but a human question.” Mr. Wilson (SFS ’15) noted that while rhetorically persuasive, Mr. Dulik’s appeals failed to challenge Ms. Bolas’s core premise that certain groups of people, namely felons and children, should not be allowed to vote. Mr. Monod (COL ’14) mocked that restriction on voting eligibility as arbitrary and baseless: “In two states, we actually do allow felons to vote, and in all 50 states, we allow stupid people to vote!” Mr. Monod then argued that voting is the most fundamental right because it is the means through which citizens can guarantee the protection of their other rights. Mr. Donovan (COL ’13) stood so far to the Left that he ended up on the Right: protesting historically unjust outcomes of voting such as segregation and bans on gay marriage, he argued that one should never be able to vote away other people’s rights to liberty. Thus, voting should only be considered a privilege under the fundamental rights of life, liberty and property. Fortunately, Mr. Bade (SFS ’14) provided clarity to the Left by pointing out that Mr. Donovan’s gripe is not with the right to vote colliding with the right to liberty, but rather with the majority will colliding with others’ liberties. The right to vote should not be taken away simply because one does not agree with some of its outcomes.
Chancellor Marsh (COL ’13) delivered a “value-ful” speech by exposing humans as prejudicial creatures full of hatred. He argued that as an individual, we should not trust that the people at large make the best decisions for the people at large. This provocative assertion impelled President Prindiville (SFS ’14) to step into the debate by announcing, “I fear for a world which Chancellor Marsh wants to live in.” A society in which the individual supersedes the collective is anarchy, which does not advance human civilization. Instead, President Prindiville called for affirming voting as a right to enable every person to share in a society’s future. Mr. Petallides (SFS ’13) brought the debate back to setting conditions under which a person can be stripped of their ability to vote, suggesting that people who do not care about politics, such as Snooki, should not vote. Laura Kurek (SFS ’16) advanced a more practical proposal, contending that one who cannot respect the life of others should not be granted the privilege of voting. Mr. Askonas (SFS ’13) thought that justice, or giving what one is due, should be the metric. If there are cases in which we can imagine that voting is not due to a person, then voting should not be a right. Whatever their respective merit, Vice President Christensen (COL ’15) posited that such arbitrary qualifications are a slippery slope to tyranny of the majority, for an enfranchised group would benefit by keeping itself as small as possible and limiting the voices that could influence the conversation. Additionally, Mr. Wooten (MSB ’13) cautioned against blaming government for human shortcomings. Making voting a privilege would make the government independent of the people: “For government to actually represent us, voting must be a right. We must have a say.” In the final floor speech, Mr. DiMisa (COL ’15) said that voting is the only time in which his voice is equal to the voice of every other person, regardless of who they are. He emphasized that voting must be a right because it is the people’s ultimate safety net: if a political party or legislator violates citizens’ rights, then they can vote the offender out of office.
In her closing keynote for the negation, Ms. Bolas reminded the Society that voting comes with qualifications, such as the requirement to register. Rights do not have qualifications by definition. Furthermore, placing voting in a tier with other rights could displace them because one could vote out other rights, which should not be the case. Ms. Wood responded by pointing out the practical implausibility of Ms. Bolas’s assertion, contending that there is no reason adding more rights hurts any existing right. The fear of enfranchisement is unfounded; in fact, historically society has only improved when more people have been included in shaping government. Finally, Ms. Wood ended with a impassioned plea for affirming the spirit of democratic elections: “Don’t be afraid of what other people will vote for because there will always be another vote. There will always be another election for which you can rally people for your cause and work to make your vision of society a reality.”
The Society voted 41-4-23 to affirm.
Congratulations to the Society for opening the semester with a passionate and dynamic debate. Huzzah!
Chloe J. Krawczyk