CRS Annotated Constitution
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Fundamental Interests: The Political Process
“The States have long been held to have broad powers to determine the conditions under which the right of suffrage may be exercised. . . , absent of course the discrimination which the Constitution condemns.”94 The Constitution provides that the qualifications of electors in congressional elections are to be determined by reference to the qualifications prescribed in the States for the electors of the most numerous branch of the legislature, and the States are authorized to determine the manner in which presidential electors are selected.95 The second section of the Fourteenth Amendment provides for a proportionate reduction in a State’s representation in the House when it denies the franchise to its qualified male citizens96 and specific discriminations on the basis of race, sex, and age are addressed in other Amendments. “We do not suggest that any standards which a State desires to adopt may be required of voters. But there is wide scope for exercise of its jurisdiction. Residence requirements, age, previous criminal record . . . are obvious examples indicating factors which a State may take into consideration in determining the qualification of voters. The ability to read and write likewise has some relation to standards designed to promote intelligent use of the ballot.”97
The perspective of this 1959 opinion by Justice Douglas has now been revolutionized. “Undoubtedly, the right of suffrage is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society. Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the rights of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized.”98 “Any unjustified discrimination in determining who may participate in political affairs or in the selection of public officials undermines the legitimacy of representative government. . . . Statutes granting the franchise to residents on a selective basis always pose the danger of denying[p.1893]some citizens any effective voice in the governmental affairs which substantially affect their lives. Therefore, if a challenged state statute grants the right to vote to some bona fide residents of requisite age and citizenship and denies the franchise to others, the Court must determine whether the exclusions are necessary to promote a compelling state interest.
“And, for these reasons, the deference usually given to the judgment of legislators does not extend to decisions concerning which resident citizens may participate in the election of legislators and other public officials. . . . [W]hen we are reviewing statutes which deny some residents the right to vote, the general presumption of constitutionality afforded state statutes and the traditional approval given state classifications if the Court can conceive of a ‘rational basis’ for the distinctions made are not applicable.”99 Using this analytical approach, the Court has established a regime of close review of a vast range of state restrictions on the eligibility to vote, on access to the ballot by candidates and parties, and on the weighing of votes cast through the devices of apportionment and districting. Changes in Court membership over the years has led to some relaxation in the application of principles, but even as the Court has drawn back in other areas it has tended to preserve, both doctrinally and in fact, the election cases.100
Voter Qualifications.—A State may require residency as a qualification to vote but since durational residency requirements impermissibly restrict the right to vote and penalize the assertion of the constitutional right to travel they are invalid.101 The Court indicated that the States have a justified interest in preventing fraud and in facilitating determination of the eligibility of potential[p.1894]registrants and granted that durational residency requirements furthered these interests, but, it said, the State had not shown that the requirements were “necessary,” that is that the interests could not be furthered by means which imposed a lesser burden on the right to vote. Other asserted interests—knowledgeability of voters, common interests, intelligent voting—were said either not to be served by the requirements or to be impermissible interests.
A 50–day durational residency requirement was sustained in the context of the closing of the registration process at 50 days prior to elections and of the mechanics of the State’s registration process. The period, the Court found, was necessary to achieve the State’s legitimate goals.102
A State that exercised general criminal, taxing, and other jurisdiction over persons on certain federal enclaves within the State, the Court held, could not treat these persons as nonresidents for voting purposes.103 A statute which provided that anyone who entered military service outside the State could not establish voting residence in the State so long as he remained in the military was held to deny to such a person the opportunity such as all non–military persons enjoyed of showing that he had established residence.104 Restricting the suffrage to those persons who had paid a poll tax was an invidious discrimination because it introduced a “capricious or irrelevant factor” of wealth or ability to pay into an area in which it had no place.105 Extending this ruling, the Court held that the eligibility to vote in local school elections may not be limited to persons owning property in the district or who have children in school,106 and denied States the right to restrict the vote[p.1895]to property owners in elections on the issuance of revenue bonds107 or general obligation bonds.108
However, the Court held that because the activities of a water storage district fell so disproportionately on landowners as a group, a limitation of the franchise in elections for the district’s board of directors to landowners, whether resident or not and whether natural persons or not, excluding non–landowning residents and lessees of land, and weighing the votes granted according to assessed valuation of land, comported with equal protection standards.109 Adverting to the reservation in prior local governmental unit election cases110 that some functions of such units might be so specialized as to permit deviation from the usual rules, the Court then proceeded to assess the franchise restrictions according to the traditional standards of equal protection rather than by those of strict scrutiny.111 Also narrowly approached was the issue of the effect of the District’s activities, the Court focusing upon the assessments against landowners as the sole means of paying expenses rather than additionally noting the impact upon lessees and non–landowning residents of such functions as flood control. The approach taken in this case seems different in great degree from that in prior cases and could in the future alter the results in other local government cases. These cases were extended somewhat in Ball v. James,112 in which the Court sustained a system in which voting eligibility was limited to landowners and votes were allocated to these voters on the basis of the number of acres they owned. The entity was a water reclamation district which stores and delivers water to 236,000 acres of land in the State and subsidizes its water operations by selling electricity to hundreds of thousands of consumers in a nearby metropolitan area. The entity’s[p.1896]board of directors was elected through a system in which the eligibility to vote was as described above. The Court thought the entity was a specialized and limited form to which its general franchise rulings did not apply.113
Finding that prevention of “raiding”—the practice whereby voters in sympathy with one party vote in another’s primary election in order to distort that election’s results—is a legitimate and valid state goal, as one element in the preservation of the integrity of the electoral process, the Court sustained a state law requiring those voters eligible at that time to register to enroll in the party of their choice at least 30 days before the general election in order to be eligible to vote in the party’s next primary election, 8 to 11 months hence. The law did not impose a prohibition upon voting but merely imposed a time deadline for enrollment, the Court held, and it was because of the plaintiffs’ voluntary failure to register that they did not meet the deadline.114 But a law which prohibited a person from voting in the primary election of a political party if he has voted in the primary election of any other party within the preceding 23 months was subjected to strict scrutiny and was voided, inasmuch as it constituted a severe restriction upon a voter’s right to associate with the party of his choice by requiring him to forgo participation in at least one primary election in order to change parties.115 A less restrictive “closed primary” system was also invalidated, the Court finding insufficient justification for a state’s preventing a political party from allowing independents to vote in its primary.116
It must not be forgotten, however, that it is only when a State extends the franchise to some and denies it to others that a “right to vote” arises and is protected by the equal protection clause. If a State chooses to fill an office by means other than through an election, neither the equal protection clause nor any other constitutional provision prevents it from doing so. Thus, in Rodriguez v.[p.1897]Popular Democratic Party,117 the Court unanimously sustained a Puerto Rico statute which authorized the political party to which an incumbent legislator belonged to designate his successor in office until the next general election upon his death or resignation. Neither the fact that the seat was filled by appointment nor the fact that the appointment was by the party, rather than by the Governor or some other official, raised a constitutional question.
The right of unconvicted jail inmates and convicted misdemeanants (who typically are under no disability) to vote by absentee ballot remains unsettled. In an early case applying rational basis scrutiny, the Court held that the failure of a State to provide for absentee balloting by unconvicted jail inmates, when absentee ballots were available to other classes of voters, did not deny equal protection when it was not shown that the inmates could not vote in any other way.118 Subsequently, the Court held unconstitutional a statute denying absentee registration and voting rights to persons confined awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences, but it is unclear whether the basis was the fact that persons confined in jails outside the county of their residences could register and vote absentee while those confined in the counties of their residences could not, or whether the statute’s jumbled distinctions among categories of qualified voters on no rational standard made it wholly arbitrary.119
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