American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters Law Day 2014
Supreme Court Law Day Observance
The Importance of a Citizen’s Right to Vote and the Challenges Still Facing Many Americans
HARTFORD—When Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers welcomed all those gathered
for the Connecticut Supreme Court’s 2014 Law Day ceremonies, May 2nd, she
took a moment to reflect on this year’s theme—American Democracy and the
Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters.
After welcoming members of the Connecticut Bar Association, fellow justices and high school students from
Bloomfield and Hartford’s Capital Preparatory Magnet School, the Chief
"As we look around the world, we see many people fighting
for the freedom to select their own leaders. This is a right that we as
Americans often take for granted. This is unfortunate because thousands of
people from all walks of life have sacrificed their lives for this right."
"Regardless of your political affiliation, I think we can all agree on
one thing—our forefathers intended this country to be defined as a democracy
that elects its leaders by the people,"she added. “This is the social
compact that the people make with the leaders of this country. In exchange,
the people agree to some measure of authority over their lives by
government. This is necessary to ensure an orderly society and highlights
the importance of an individual vote."
On the 50th-year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the eve of
the 50th-year anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the American Bar
Association, sponsors of Law Day throughout the country, ask all "…to
reflect on the importance of a citizen’s right to vote and the challenges we
still face in ensuring that all Americans have the opportunity to
participate in our democracy."
Who better to address this notion than the Supreme Court’s Law Day Keynote
Speaker, Professor Douglas M. Spencer, J.D., Ph.D., who is an expert on
election law—with emphasis on election policies and the Voting Rights
Act—and whose research currently focuses on the institutional regulation of
elections at the intersection of law and political science.
Dr. Spencer opened by providing statistics on the percentage of eligible voters
who turn out to vote for the
president every four years (60 percent),
Senators and Representatives during mid-term years (40 percent) and far
fewer turn out to vote for state and local officials in off-years. In fact,
Dr. Spencer noted, just five percent of eligible Hartford voters turned out
for the latest School Board election.
"It makes you wonder, what would happen if we held an election and nobody showed up?" Dr. Spencer
But it is a statement, he believes, that is not far-fetched,
particularly at the local election level.
He noted: "Abraham Lincoln once said, 'Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide
to turn their backs on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just
have to sit on their blisters.'"
In other words, Dr. Spencer noted, "In virtually every election those who exercise their right to vote are far
outnumbered by those who stay at home."
But there is a conundrum that exists between experts concerning those who vote and those who don’t,
according to Dr. Spencer.
"To many, low turnout signals a general apathy about politics and undermines the legitimacy of our elected leaders
who are elected by a minority of the population,” he explained. “Many people
point to America’s low turnout as evidence that something is wrong with our
electoral system. They may be right. On the other hand, the issue may be
Some scholars, he explained, say that non-voting could
be a sign of contentment and a satisfied electorate. But Dr. Spencer took
this a step further and said, “If the 40 percent of the population that
votes is representative of the population as a whole, then the outcome of
the election is both accurate and legitimate.
"What I would like to impress upon you today is the idea that the number of voters that turn out
is less important than the representativeness of the voters that turn out."
He then pointed out that people with more education and high incomes are
"far more likely" to vote than those with less advantages. Citing a quote in
a study by Alexander Keyssar, he quoted, "The people who are least likely to
be content or satisfied—and the most likely to need government
help—are those who are least likely to vote."
Dr. Spencer discussed some of the obstacles that some voters—the poor, racial minorities, students (to
name a few)—face such as restrictive voting laws, the push for photo IDs,
redistricting, campaign finance, cutbacks to early voting and times that
polls open and close, long lines and limited ballots.
"So the effect on turn out is uneven, meaning the laws could impact the
outcome of an election," he said. "The fear of partisan distortion is what
has fueled the controversy, not the burden on individual rights."
In closing, Dr. Spencer said: "Despite the various attacks on voting rights
in recent years, the right to vote is available to nearly all adult
citizens…As we celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act and
the Voting Rights Act, we pause to think about the progress we’ve made with
regards to voting rights, but also to find a renewed push to finish the task
of making sure that every vote matters."
Attorney Kimberly Knox followed with an engaging
discussion of Connecticut’s approach to voting rights through the
years—including a proposed amendment at the 1818 Constitutional Convention
by the State’s first Chief Justice Stephen Mix Mitchell—to eliminate "white
male" from the eligibility requirement. This, she noted, "…would have
effectively eliminated the race and sex limitation. But in the end, and by a
narrow margin, the right to vote was preserved for all adult white men who
paid taxes or had served in the military."