[In Parts One and Two, we examined the controversy about the meaning of the term native born citizen, growing calls for a variety of constitutional amendments, and even an unknown element called by some as a “Convention of States.” In Part Three, we will review some historical problems with the voting process along with what I describe as fault lines that indicate the erosion in our republican system of government caused by the stress on its 18th century foundations.]
The U.S. Constitution has been described as the “world’s oldest national charter in continuous use.” Since its adoption, our nation has grown from a small republic of less than four million citizens to a vibrant land of 320 million, spanning a continent and incorporating Caribbean and Pacific territories as well. Only China and India, much older civilizations, are larger in population. This growth was made possible not only by abundant territory available for settlement but also by our ability to absorb people from many lands and cultures as new and worthy citizens. The Founding Fathers, as visionary as they were, might not even recognize the diverse colossus we have become.
But the constitution, by design, is not as elastic as our national boundaries. That is the Founders’ gift to us- and our challenge – as we examine this sacred document and ensure that it is also a living instrument which can be modified to address modern times.
In spite of all this growth and attending societal change, our national charter has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights was adopted shortly after the ratification of the Constitution. While we are proud of the stability and continuity our Constitution has given us, clearly the signs of stress on a federal system, designed in the 18th century and modified ever so slightly by those few amendments, are starting to show. True, the nation survived a bloody civil war, abolished slavery, fought tyranny abroad, became a superpower and a more just society as the result of the civil rights movement and the struggles of many determined citizens, yet the republic is still a work in progress.
But three relatively recent events have served to expose the structural flaws of our federal system as never before. These flaws, or fault lines, make our system unstable and in need of immediate repair. While the founders by necessity sought to balance many competing interests in order to gain approval for our federal system and a Constitution that served to create a singular meaning for the term United States, we are nevertheless limited by the inadequacies of our Constitution as it is tested by modernity.
The 2000 presidential election uncovered, yet again, the first fault line, where the popular vote winner turned out to be the loser. If Bush v. Gore had a salutary effect, it taught those who didn’t know their history that in 1824, 1876, and 1888, the popular vote winners, like Al Gore in 2000, did not gain the White House. Andrew Jackson, Samuel Tilden and Grover Cleveland, along with Al Gore, are remembered today as winners who did not in fact win that ultimate prize, though Jackson and Cleveland turned out to be comeback kids the next time around.
A second fault line weakening our constitutional system is the Citizens United decision, where the U. S. Supreme Court in 2010 equated political spending as a form of protected speech, allowing billions of dollars to flow into – and further corrupt – a system already under great strain due to the overrepresentation of special interests that seek to manipulate legislation and policy for narrow, private gain. Already, sixteen states have gone on record favoring a constitutional amendment to repeal this disastrous Supreme Court ruling that has undermined our political system.
A third fault line is the access citizens have to the polling place and voting booth. Recent attempts by more than 30 state legislatures to manipulate that access through restrictive voter ID laws and reduced early voting opportunities have produced an unintended result, where many now question what constitutes a fully qualified voter or why we vote on Tuesdays rather than over a weekend, as is the practice in many other countries.
Certainly, there are attempts underway by various groups to tweak our current system, with the National Popular Vote Plan, Move to Amend , and other anti-Citizens United groups among the most prominent. While we might applaud and encourage such efforts, it is clear that a more comprehensive approach is necessary to fundamentally reform our electoral processes while at the same time a conscious decision is made to steer clear of the “Convention of States” approach to a constitutional convention.
So please allow me, an average citizen, to join Greg Abbott, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and legions of other concerned citizens to suggest needed reforms that will bolster the foundations of our republic by repairing these three fault lines that weaken and thus undermine our national foundation.
We saw in Part Two the very real danger inherent in an Article 5 Convention, or the so-called Convention of States approach, and reformers must reluctantly acknowledge that option is fraught with danger. But in order to build the agenda for reform, we must call for a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress, concerned about our crumbling electoral system, to develop the moral courage that will lead to the introduction of a series of resolutions over the next several years to lay out these types of simple constitutional reforms.
Indeed, we have seen attempts to ban gay marriage, abortion, flag burning, and numerous other proposals introduced in Congress in recent times. After examining this list, it is fortunate that our cumbersome system of constitutional revision worked in most cases. In Part Four, then, let us look beyond such emotional issues and instead examine a series of specific proposals to renew the republic and our system of government.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator, Fulbright Fellow, and a former graduate and undergraduate history student. He was born in Philadelphia, birthplace of the United States Constitution, and maintains a strong interest in ensuring a healthy democratic system of government.