Exercise Those Rights

Four years ago, more than 130 million Americans voted in the presidential election. Through the swirling chaos of this year’s election, experts predict an even more robust voter turnout.

Whether braving lines and social contact at a polling place on Nov. 3, or by absentee or mail-in ballot, will you be one of those voters? It is not too late to register to participate in perhaps the most fundamental right bestowed on citizens in this democracy. 

Here in Onondaga County, you still have time. Voter registration forms must be delivered in person to the Onondaga County Board of Elections or postmarked by Friday, Oct. 9. (For more information, visit ongov.net/elections/index.html.)

Though much of the attention is focused on the presidential election, and for good reason, there are congressional and state legislative races and local elections on the ballots. The “down-ticket” races and issues may lack the glitz, glamor and gore of the national election, but they still play an important role in the democracy and governmental operations. The lower-ticket races determine everything from the composition of Congress to your local government officials, as well as special ballot issues.    

The hard-fought right to vote embodies the most basic part of the democratic system: choosing the people and officials who will design, set and enforce laws and public policy; it’s how we define what our society stands for. The right of self-governance through public participation—voting—is so vital, the Constitution and a body of federal and state laws ensure and protect the right to vote. 

The United States Supreme Court regards voting as a fundamental right, so important that it demands vigorous protection under the law and the Constitution.

The right to vote and self-governance are further accompanied by political speech, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly enshrined with the highest level of protection under the First Amendment.

The right to vote is at the “heart of representative government,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in a 1964 voting rights case. Warren’s knowledge came from decades of service in two branches of both state and federal government. He served as governor and attorney general of California and ran as the vice presidential candidate in 1948 before serving as Chief Justice of the United States for 16 years.

In the 1964 case, Reynolds v. Sims, Warren wrote: “The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government. And the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.”

This dovetails with the concept of political speech—speech on public issues, public policy and government power—which has been afforded the highest level of protection under the First Amendment. This also transcends party, politics and affiliation. 

To illustrate the bipartisan reverence for political speech, we can draw from the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, which is among the most controversial and political decisions in decades. 

In that case, which dealt with campaign finance and corporate speech, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s underlying rationale emanates from the political speech doctrine, which he wrote is “speech that is central to the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment” and  “indispensable” in making decisions in the democracy. Likewise, in his impassioned and vocal dissent in the same case, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the First Amendment “closely guards political speech.”

Election season also amplifies the important role of the free, independent press and media to disseminate information and provide platforms for expression, criticism and exchange of information about the issues and the candidates. 

Whether you are an activist, a journalist or simply a citizen who cares about public affairs and believes in the system, can you afford not to participate in these democratic exercises with so much at stake?  It’s not too late to register here in New York. Voter registration forms must be postmarked by Friday, Oct. 9.

Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor of communications law and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.

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