Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter “Fratelli Tutti” (Brothers All)

On October 3, in Assisi (Italy) at the tomb of Saint  Francis, Pope Francis released his lengthy (287 paragraphs) Encyclical Letter, “Fratelli Tutti” (Brothers All).”[1]

Here are this lay person’s overview of this important document and summary of the instantaneous reactions thereto from E.J. Dionne Jr., a Washington Post columnist on U.S. national politics and a Roman Catholic, and from other journalists.

Overview of the Letter

The title of the Encyclical– “Fratelli Tutti”—was used by Saint Francis to address “his brothers and sisters” and to propose “a way of life marked by the flavor of the Gospel.” The Letter’s guiding light is Saint Francis’ call “for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother ‘as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him.’”

The Letter has an introduction “Without Borders” before exploring the following eight chapters:

  • One: Dark Clouds Over a Closed World;
  • Two: A Stranger on the Road;
  • Three: Envisaging and Engendering an Open World;
  • Four: A Heart Open to the Whole World;
  • Five: A Better Kind of Politics;
  • Six: Dialogue and Friendship in Society;
  • Seven: Paths of Renewed Encounter; and
  • Eight: Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World.

The Letter concludes with the following two prayers:

A Prayer to the Creator:

  • “Lord, Father of our human family,
    you created all human beings equal in dignity:
    pour forth into our hearts a fraternal spirit
    and inspire in us a dream of renewed encounter,
    dialogue, justice and peace.
    Move us to create healthier societies
    and a more dignified world,
    a world without hunger, poverty, violence and war.”
  • “May our hearts be open
    to all the peoples and nations of the earth.
    May we recognize the goodness and beauty
    that you have sown in each of us,
    and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects,
    and shared dreams. Amen.”

An Ecumenical Christian Prayer:

  • “O God, Trinity of love,
    from the profound communion of your divine life,
    pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love.
    Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus,
    in his family of Nazareth,
    and in the early Christian community.”
  • “Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel,
    discovering Christ in each human being,
    recognizing him crucified
    in the sufferings of the abandoned
    and forgotten of our world,
    and risen in each brother or sister
    who makes a new start.”
  • “Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty,
    reflected in all the peoples of the earth,
    so that we may discover anew
    that all are important and all are necessary,
    different faces of the one humanity
    that God so loves. Amen.”

E.J. Dionne, Jr.’s Reactions [2]

E.J. Dionne Jr. published an intriguing column about this lengthy Papal Encyclical Letter, only one day after it was published.[2] Here is a summary of what Dionne had to say, which will probably spark this blogger’s comments after he carefully and prayerfully studies the Encyclical Letter.

According to Dionne, this Letter only a month before the U.S. presidential election criticizes many aspects of current politics that are found in the U.S. and other countries:

  • It criticizes persons who advocate “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism” and cast immigrants as “less worthy, less important, less human.”
  • It criticizes advocates of an ““every man for himself” worldview that “will rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic.”
  • “The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes … the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’ — without using the name.”
  • It denounces those who speak of “empty individualism,” a “narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different,” and “a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference.”
  • The Pope “cited his earlier condemnations of “a ‘throwaway’ world” that lacks respect for the “poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’ — like the unborn — or ‘no longer needed’ — like the elderly.” And he denounced human trafficking as a “perversion that exceeds all limits when it subjugates women and then forces them to abort.”
  • The Pope had 12 references to capital punishment as “inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.”
  • The Pope criticized the world’s inability “to resolve problems that affect us all” like the COVID-19 pandemic and  “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.” Moreover, ““God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of ‘them’ and ‘those’, but only ‘us’. … If only we might keep in mind all those elderly persons who died for lack of respirators, partly as a result of the dismantling, year after year, of healthcare systems.”
  • “Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others. In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.” This is “a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism.”

Other Reactions [3]

Chico Harlan, the Washington Post’s Rome Bureau Chief, and Stefano Pitrelli of that Bureau who covers Italy and the Vatican, lead with this statement, “Humankind, Pope Francis says, is in the midst of a worrying regression. People are intensely polarized. Their debates, absent real listening, seem to have devolved into a ‘permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.’ In some countries, leaders are using a ‘strategy of ridicule’ and relentless criticism, spreading despair as a way to ‘dominate and gain control.’”

Harlan and Pitrelli believe that the encyclical “amounts to a papal stand against tribalism, xenophobia, and the dangers of the social media age.” They also point out that this is only the third encyclical by Pope Francis. The first was “Lumen Fidei” (the Light of Faith) which was issued in 2013 soon after he became pope and was written mostly by Benedict XVI. The second, “Laudarto Si” (On Care for Our Common Home) in 2015 addressed responsibility for the environment, climate change and development.

The New York Times’ Rome Bureau Chief, Jason Horowitz, opened with Pope Francis’ criticism of the world’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic as “exposing our false securities” and “inability to work together.” This was accerbated by the forces of “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism.” The document also “calls for closeness to the marginalized, support for migrants, resistance of nationalist and tribal populism, and the abolition of the death penalty.” Hindering “the development of universal fraternity” were economic inequality, sexism and racism.

The Wall Street Journal’s article on the encyclical is by Francis X. Rocca, who is its Vatican correspondent based in Rome. He says the document offered the Pope’s “prescription for a host of ills plaguing societies around the world, including poverty, terrorism and racism, and “echoes some of the major themes of his social teaching, including the rights of migrants and the poor, with a special urgency inspired by Covid-19.” He also notes for non-Catholics that papal encyclicals are “one of the most authoritative genres of papal writing.”

Conclusion

As a Protestant (Presbyterian) Christian, I plan to give this Encyclical Letter careful and prayerful study and then offer my reactions to the Letter and to the comments by Dionne and  other journalists.

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[1] The Holy See, Encyclical Letter: FRATELLI TUTTI of the Holy Father Francis on the Fraternity and Social Friendship (Oct. 3, 2020).

[2] Dionne, The Pope’s unexpected election message, Wash. Post (Oct. 4, 2020).

[3] Harlan & Pitrelli, Pope Francis’s new encyclical is a papal warning about a world going bad, Wash. Post (Oct. 4, 2020); Horowitz, Pope Criticizes Lack of Unity in World’s Response to Coronovirus, N.Y. Times (Oct. 4, 2020); Rocca, Pope Francis Says Covid-19 Pandemic Shows Limits of Market Economics, W.S.J. (Oct. 4, 2020). See also Pepinster, How Pope Francis’s encyclical could shake up the US election, Guardian (Oct. 6, 2020).

 

 

 

Click to access papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si_en.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin’s Primary Election

On Tuesday, April 7, the State of Wisconsin held a primary election in the midst of this Pandemic. Previously the State’s Democratic Governor,      , attempted to recognize the impact of the Pandemic on in-person voting by encouraging voting by mail through modifying the rules for the submission and counting of votes by mail, but the Republican-controlled state legislature objected to those changes. This led to litigation. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 6, by a 5-4 decision, granted the Republican National Committee’s application for a stay of the U.S. district court’s preliminary injunction requiring the State to count absentee ballots postmarked after April 7 (the date of the in-person voting).[1]

This post will examine that Supreme Court decision and the reactions thereto by the New York Times and the Washington Post) and by the Wall Street Journal. This blog post will conlclude by adding its comments to all of this.

The Lower Courts’ Decisions[2]

In early March several individual Wisconsin voters, community organizations and the state and national Democratic parties brought three  lawsuits  in a federal district court in Wisconsin against members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission seeking several forms of relief, all aimed at easing the effects of the pandemic on the upcoming election. The state and national Republican parties intervened as defendants, and on March 28, the federal court consolidated the three cases. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court entered a preliminary injunction extending the deadline for voters to request absentee ballots from April 2 to April 3 and also extending the deadline for election officials to receive completed absentee ballots from April 7 to April 13 (regardless of the postmark date). The preliminary injunction also barred the Elections Commission and election inspectors from releasing any report of the in-person polling before April 13.

The Elections Commission did not challenge the preliminary injunction, but the intervenors (the national and state Republican parties) appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit for a stay of the preliminary injunction’s extension of the deadline for returning absentee ballots. However, on April 3, the Seventh Circuit denied such a stay, but granted the application for intervention by the Wisconsin Legislature.

U.S. Supreme Court’s Proceedings

On April 4, the intervenors (state and national Republican parties and Wisconsin Legislature)  filed an emergency application with the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of the district court’s preliminary injunction insofar as it required the State to count absentee ballots postmarked after April 7 (the day of the election). [3]

The next day (April 5) the Democratic National Party filed its response followed by the Republican National Committee’s  reply. [4]

The very next day (April 6) the Supreme court issued its Per Curium majority opinion. This opinion was supported by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

The Majority Opinion. This opinion started by claiming, “The question before the Court is a narrow, technical questions about the absentee ballot process . . . whether absentee ballots now must be mailed and postmarked by election day, Tuesday, April 7, as state law would necessarily require, or instead by mailed and postmarked after election day, so long as they are received by Monday, April 13.”

Important for the majority of the Court was the fact that the plaintiffs did not seek a preliminary injunction extending the deadline for mailing of absentee ballots. More importantly, the district court’s order “contravened this Court’s precedents” that have “repeatedly emphasized that lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.” (Emphasis added for the unintended ironical use of the word “ordinarily.”)

The majority opinion then criticized the dissent, which will be discussed after the dissenting opinion is summarized.

The Dissenting Opinion . The dissent was authored by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

This opinion emphasized the importance of this primary election for U.S. president and many state positions in the context of the “COVID-19 pandemic” having become a “public health crisis” and the Governor’s March 24th ordering “Wisconsinites to stay home until April 24 to slow the spread of the disease.As a result, “an unprecedented number of Wisconsin voters—at the encouragement of public officials—have turned to voting absentee. . . . Accommodating the surge of absentee ballot requests has heavily burdened election officials, resulting in a severe backlog of ballots requested but not promptly mailed to voters.” (Emphasis added.)

In response, according to the dissent, after an evidentiary hearing, the district “court concluded that the existing deadlines for absentee voting would unconstitutionally burden Wisconsin citizens’ right to vote.,” and therefore entered the preliminary injunction. (Emphasis added.)

Justice Ginsburg then  pointed out that the Supreme court’s majority “requires absentee voters to postmark their ballots by election day, April 7—i.e., tomorrow—even if they did not receive their ballots by that date.” This “will result in massive disenfranchisement. A voter cannot deliver for postmarking a ballot she has not received. Yet tens of thousands of voters who timely requested ballots are unlikely to receive them by April 7, the Court’s postmark deadline.” (Emphasis added.)

The dissent continued, The majority opinion’s “suggestion that the current situation is not ‘substantially different’ from ‘an ordinary election’ boggles the mind.” (Emphasis added.)

The majority opinion claims that the plaintiffs in the district court did not ask for an injunction allowing ballots postmarked after April 7, but Justice Ginsburg pointed out that “the plaintiffs specifically requested that remedy at the preliminary-injunction hearing in view of the ever-increasing demand for absentee ballots.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, “The concerns advanced by the Court and the applicants pale in comparison to the risk that tens of thousands of voters will be disenfranchised. Ensuring an opportunity for the people of Wisconsin to exercise their votes should be our paramount concern.” (Emphasis added.)

The majority opinion is “wrong” to claim that this case presents a “narrow, technical question.” Instead, “The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic. Under the District Court’s order, they would be able to do so.” Under the majority opinion, “that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own. That is a matter of utmost importance—to the constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s citizens, the integrity of the State’s election process, and in this most extraordinary time, the health of the Nation” (Emphasis added.)

The Majority’s Response to the Dissent. This opinion asserts that before the preliminary injunction “the deadline for [election officials’] receiving ballots was already extended to accommodate Wisconsin voters, from April 7 to April 13. Again, that extension has the effect of extending the date for a voter to mail the ballot from, in effect, Saturday, April 4, to Tuesday, April 7. That extension was designed to ensure that the voters of Wisconsin can cast their ballots and have their votes count.” The preliminary injunction’s allowing “voters to mail their ballots after election day . . . is extraordinary relief and would fundamentally alter the nature of the election by allowing voting for six additional days after the election.”

Reactions to Supreme Court’s Decision[5]

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board and columnists as well as New York Times’ columnists unanimously criticized the Supreme Court’s decision. (The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board, however, supported that decision.)

The Post’s editorial pointed out that polling places in Milwaukee had been reduced from 180 to 5, causing “lines [of voters] snaked for blocks, with waits reported to be up to three hours long.” As a result, “plenty of people chose not to vote.” In contrast, “voters in Republican-leaning areas of the state reportedly had a far easier time.” The editorial also noted, “ When people are in line at a polling place at closing time, judges order the polls to stay open. It should have been the same for people who got in line properly for an absentee ballot. The conservative justices’ lack of concern for these thousands of voters will only encourage speculation that their motivation was partisan.”

The most stinging commentary was provided by the Post’s Jennifer Rubin. She noted the irony of the majority’s opinion that delaying the date for return of the absentee ballots “fundamentally alters the nature of the election.” Yes, Rubin said, “it would make it safer (fewer people would have to risk exposing themselves to the coronavirus at the polls) and would encourage more participation.”  This decision “is among the most irresponsible and anti-democratic in recent memory.” She also quoted Michael J. Abramowitz, the President of Freedom House,       , who said,, “the emerging debacle surrounding the Wisconsin primary demonstrates the crucial need to take strong measures to protect elections during the eCOVIS-19 pandemic.” Finally, “Republican politicians and conservative justices will not shy from making voting difficult, dangerous and confusing. Their highest goal is not robust elections, but elections in which fewer voters turnout.. . . [Such] motives (think, suppress voting) are obnoxious and anti-democratic.”

Another Post columnist, E.J. Dionne Jr., said that President Trump had made clear that “for Republicans voter suppression is part of the party’s game plan.” Under a Democratic proposal for federal financing of nation-wide mail-in voting, Trump said, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” He also recently tweeted that voting by mail “for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

Linda Greenhouse, who has spent four decades studying and writing about the Supreme Court for the New York Times, said, “I’ve rarely seen a development as disheartening as this one: a squirrelly, intellectually dishonest lecture in the form of an unsigned majority opinion . . . about how ‘this court has repeatedly emphasized that lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.’” (Emphasis added.)

“How could they say that,” according to Greenhouse, when “[p}eople shouldn’t ordinarily be afraid of catching a deadly virus when exercising their right to vote. Half the poll-worker shifts in the city of Madison are not ordinarily vacant, abandoned by a work force composed mostly of people at high risk because of their age.” And “Milwaukee voters are not ordinarily reduced to using only five polling places. [Voters and poll workers do not ordinarily hazmat suits.]  And the number of requests for absentee ballots in Milwaukee doesn’t ordinarily grow by a factor of 10, leading to a huge backlog for processing and mailing.” (Emphases added.)

Greenhouse concluded by asserting the Court’s majority was “unwilling to do what they could to help” the Wisconsin election by rejecting the Republicans’ challenge to “the common-sense solution that a federal judge had devised with the support of the officials who actually had to carry out the election.” That majority’s decision “raises the question whether the empowered conservative majority has the situational awareness to navigate the dire situation that faces the country, and whether it can avoid further displays of raw partisanship that threaten to inflict lasting institutional damage on the court itself. It’s a moment that calls on everyone in a position of power to display vision and a generosity of spirit.”  (Emphasis added.)

In addition,, some of the commentators had suggestions for improving election laws.

The previously mentioned E.J. Dionne suggested that “Congress must pass legislation as part of the next economic rescue package that will require mail-in ballots in every state and finance the effort with federal money” and that “Biden and Sanders . . . should hold a joint video news conference with Sens. Elizabeth Warner . . and Amy Klobuchar  . . .on behalf of Warren’s comprehensive bill to provide $4 billion for postage free mail ballots . . .  [and] a ban on onerous voting requirements, hazard pay for poll workers and an end to voter purges at a moment when it will be hard for voters to defend their rights.”  Finally Dionne advocated Liberals to press for “remedies (such as expanding the size of the court0 to battle both conservative court-packing and right-wing judicial activism.”

Richard Hasen,  Professor of Law and Political Science at University of California at Irvine School of Law, said, “[S]tates need to be prepared to thwart and prosecute any attempts to tamper with ballots. . . . states should send an application for an absentee ballot to every voter listed on voting rolls. . . .Voters should also be allowed to request absentee ballots online. . . . States should also prevent the unlimited collection of absentee ballots by private individuals . . . . some voters who need assistance getting their votes to the U.S. mail or to a state collection box . . . . Absentee voters should be told if their ballots are being rejected for technical reasons — such as a purported mismatched signature — and have the chance to cure the problem and have their ballot counted.”

David Byler, a data analyst and political columnist focusing on elections, polling, demographics and statistics, offered these thoughts. “We should keep one feature of this messy Wisconsin election around: a slower process for reporting results. . . .This restriction made for a relatively muted election night: Reporters weren’t live-tweeting votes as they came in, quickly writing takes on how to interpret the race or trying to spin out a second-day story. . . . Ramping up vote-by-mail would extend the franchise, help virus-proof our system and make the process more psychologically bearable.”

John Hickenlooper, a former mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado and current candidate for the U.S. Senate, described his state’s successful voting from home for the last six years as a model for reforming other jurisdictions’ election laws. “Every eligible Colorado voter receives a ballot in the mail roughly three weeks before Election Day, and after marking their choices from the comfort of their own home, voters mail the ballot back or deposit it at one of the hundreds of drop-off locations around the state (and put on their “I Voted” sticker). We also make it possible for voters to register through Election Day, and to vote in person. Denver city and county voters even have the ability to track the status of their ballots, with email or text notifications, as they travel through the postal system. The “Ballot TRACE” software ensures that every mailed ballot is accounted for.”

In addition, Hickenlooper says, “In Colorado, election officials conduct rigorous risk-limiting audits after elections. They also use a centralized database to compare signatures in the voter file with those on ballot envelopes and track ballot returns to keep an eye out for any possible irregularities. And, of course, one advantage of using mailed ballots is that paper can’t be hacked.”  This system has increased voter turnout by 3.3% and saved about $6 per voter from reduced printing, labor and other costs. In its first year it increased turnout of unlikely voters (younger and low-propensity voters) by 20 %.

The lone contrary voice on these issues from prominent mainline newspapers was the Wall Street Journal’s editorial, which said the Supreme Court “rightly reversed a district judge’s last-minute order that would have allowed Wisconsin ballots to be cast after the election was legally over. The confusing episode is a reminder that, even in a pandemic, steps as grave as rewriting voting rules should be up to elected representatives and not freelanced by judges.”

Conclusion

Needless to say, this blogger agrees with the Washington Post and New York Times. Voting by U.S. citizens is an unalienable right and needs to be encouraged and protected, not suppressed. This especially is true during times that are not ordinary, like the current pandemic.

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[1] Opinions, Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., No. 19A1016 (U.S. Sup. Ct. April 6, 2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emergency Application for Stay, Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm, (No. 19A1016, U.S. Sup. Ct. April 4,  2020).

[4]   Response to Application for Emergency Stay, Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm (No. 19A1016  (U.S. Sup. Ct. April 5, 2020); Reply in Support of Emergency Application for Stay, Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm (No. 19A1016 U.S. Sup Ct. April 5, 2020).

[5] Editorial, Wisconsin Republican leaders put voters in an impossible position, Wash. Post (April 7, 2020); Rubin, Wisconsin shows the fragility of democracy, Wash. Post (April 7, 2020); E.J. Dionne, Jr., What we learned from Wisconsin, Wash. Post (April 8, 2020); Marcus, Wisconsin’s debacle may be the most infuriating of the coronavirus failures, Wash. Post (April 7, 2020); Waldman, Wisconsin’s election nightmare is a preview of what could happen in November, Wash. Post (April 7, 2020); Olsen, There’s plenty of room to compromise on mail-in voting. Get it done, Wash. Post (April 8, 2020); Byler, The Wisconsin election was a mess. But there’s one element of it worth emulating, Wash. Post (April 8, 2020); Hickenlooper, We’ve been voting at home for six years in my state. It’s time to do it nationally, Wash. Post (April 8, 2020); Hasen, Trump is wrong about the dangers of absentee ballots, Wash. Post (April 9, 2020); Editorial, You Shouldn’t Have to Risk Your Life to Vote, N.Y. Times (April 3, 2020); Greenhouse, The Supreme Court Fails Us, N.Y. Times (April 9, 2020); Assoc. Press, In Wisconsin, Missing Absentees Spur Questions and Anger, N.Y. Times (April 9, 2020) ;Boule, The G.O.P. Has Turned Voting in Person Into a Death Threat, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2020) (“There is no part of the Republican Party — not its president in the White House, not its leadership in Congress, not its conservative allies on the Supreme Court, not its interest groups or its affiliated media — that has an interest in or commitment to a fair, equal and expansive democracy.”); Douglas, Yes, Wisconsin Republicans used the pandemic to stop people from voting, Guardian (April 9, 2020) (Douglas, a professor at Amherst College: “Wisconsin, once a thriving crucible of progressive politics, has turned into a vanguard of the Republican assault on democracy.”); Editorial, Wisconsin’s Election Confusion, W.S.J. (April 7, 2020).

 

 

 

Other Thoughts About Gratitude

E. J. Dionne Jr.
E. J. Dionne Jr.

On Thanksgiving Day, E. J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post columnist, added his thoughts about the discipline of gratitude.

“Thanksgiving is about gratitude,” he says, “which is a disposition, a virtue and a way of thinking all at once.” Indeed, it “is a form of discipline. Often those with hard lives and little wealth express enormous gratitude for what they do have, sometimes simply for life itself. Perhaps those with the least best understand Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.’”

When Dionne congratulated Yuval Levin, the conservative editor, writer and political theorist, for his great success by his age of 38, Levin responded “that ‘luck and chance go a long way,’” and that “Ecclesiastes 9:11 should be stamped on luxury cars and Harvard degrees.” That passage in the New International Version of the Bible states:

  • “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

“Gratitude,” said Dionne, “requires the swift, the strong, the wise, the wealthy, the brilliant and the learned (or those whom the world recognizes as such) to beware of their temptation to arrogance.”

“No matter how hard we might have toiled or how much we might have struggled, the bounty we enjoy is inescapably linked to unearned blessings. We need to remember what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said “’Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we are saved by love.’”

Dionne’s thoughts echo those of Arthur C. Brooks that were summarized in a prior post [1] as well as those about my own gratitude.[2]

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[1] Another Perspective on Gratitude (Nov. 23, 2015)

[2] Gratitude I (March 15, 2012); Gratitude II (April 11, 2012); Gratitude III (April 13, 2012); Gratitude Revisited (June 13, 2015).

 

U.S. Needs New Voting Rights Act

Problems exist with the present U.S. voting systems and procedures. Here are just a few:

  • In the November 2012 general election, many states that were controlled by Republican state legislatures and governors adopted various measures that, in my opinion, were intended to suppress voting by U.S. citizens, including minorities, who were deemed likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
  • Late this June the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an important provision of the Voting Rights act of 2006. [1]
  • Immediately after that Supreme Court decision, some states–most notably Texas [2] and North Carolina–have moved to implement or adopt restrictive voting laws. [3]

This blog has criticized these efforts to restrict voting and that Supreme Court decision. This blog also has proposed ways to expand voting in this country, many of which have been voiced as well by Norman Ornstein, author and Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.[4]

Here are my suggestions for a new federal Voting Rights Act.

First, every U.S. citizen entitled to vote.

That includes all citizens who have been convicted of felonies and who are still in prison and those who have served their sentences. They are human beings who have interests and opinions, and they have unique experiences of life inside our prisons, which are often neglected in the political debate about allocation of resources.

Now only two states (Maine and Vermont) impose no voting restrictions on felons or ex-felons. Other states impose various restrictions, with 12 states (six in the South) banning ex-felons from voting even after they have completed prison and probation or parole. As a result, an estimated 5.9 million citizens are disenfranchised on this basis, about one-fourth of whom are still in prison. Because 38.2% of these people are African-American, it is also a racial justice issue.

The electorate also should include all children. They too are human beings with interests that should be reflected in elections. This is especially true in an electorate in which older citizens tend to vote in higher percentages and naturally have an interest in programs and services that benefit them. I am a member of the older group and yet believe our political influence needs to be counterbalanced by the voices of the youngest. Creation of a voting system to allow all children to vote would require a lot of careful consideration of how this could be accomplished.  It presumably would have parents or guardians voting for their children through a certain age such as 16 or 18.[5]

Second, every U.S. citizen required to vote.

Every citizen should be required to vote at least in national elections.

This is true in many countries so it can be done. Such a system, I believe, would have the beneficial effect of causing political parties and candidates to appeal to voters in the middle of the political spectrum and thereby combat the polarization of our political system. Again, creation of such a system would require careful consideration of how that could be done.

Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have made such a proposal. One means of enforcing such a law, they say, would be a modest fine, say $15, for failure to vote with increased amounts for repeated failures. Another way would be to provide a small tax credit for voting.

Third, no racial discrimination in voting.

Using the language of the Voting Rights Act of 2006, forbid any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Fourth, simplified voting laws and procedure.

To make it easier to vote, Ornstein and Mann offer the following suggestions:

a. A new voter registration regime. Ornstein asserts, “eligible citizens should be presumed registered.”  Allow online registration and transfer of such records when the voter moves to a new home by sharing data with private databases. Allow “same-day voter registration available for those not registered via their draft registration or driver’s license. Ideally, Congress would provide the funds to modernize voter registration lists and create a 21st-century voting process in which voters could get personalized ballots printed, with all the offices they are eligible to vote on, at any polling place in their vicinity. Why shouldn’t Americans be able to vote at any nearby polling center?”

b. More easily accessible polling places. Use facilities in or near shopping centers or arenas.

c. Weekend Election “Day.”  As Ornstein says, “’Election Day’ should suit contemporary American life:  a 24-hour period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, with early voting the week before. This would eliminate ‘rush-hour’ backlogs early in the morning and at the end of the day, as well as Sabbath problems. If Wal-Mart can stay open 24/7, our democracy can stay open 24 hours once every two years.”

d. Social Security cards as valid voter IDs. Any U.S. citizen, Ornstein asserts, “who can provide proof of a valid Social Security number should be able to obtain, free, a Social Security card with a photo. It should be mandated as acceptable for identification wherever a photo ID is required to vote. Such cards should be available not just at Social Security offices but also at post offices.”

e. Uniform separate federal election ballot. Finally, Ornstein believes “Congress has the clear constitutional right to manage federal elections. A separate ballot for federal races strengthens that control. Other advantages include no more confusing butterfly ballots; there would be no more than three races (president, Senate and House) on a federal ballot. No more provisional ballots or access denied if someone shows up at the wrong polling place; the vote would still count only for those federal offices.”

Conclusion

These voting changes would help make the federal government more accountable to the citizens. Other changes to aid in this effort have been suggested in this blog: certain constitutional changes, elimination of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule and reforming the system for creating new congressional districts after the decennial census.


[1] Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has criticized the Court’s decision invalidating a provision of the Voting Rights Act.

[2] On July 25th the Department of Justice sued the State of Texas to ask a federal court to require Texas to get permission from the federal government before making voting changes. The suit is based upon section 3 of the Voting Rights Act of 2006 which allows such relief if the Government shows that the jurisdiction has committed constitutional violations with respect to voting. Richard H. Pildes, a New York University professor said, “If this strategy works, it will become a way of partially updating the Voting Rights Act through the courts.”  A Washington Post editorial endorsed this approach while also calling on Congress to enact a new statutory formula for comprehensive coverage of states for such preclearance. An editorial in the New York Times also supports this approach as does Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr.

[3] New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, points out that almost all of the states that were covered by the Voting Rights Act provision that was invalidated are Republican-controlled and are now wasting “no time . . .  to institute efforts to suppress the vote in the next election and beyond.”

4] Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collides with the New Politics of Extremism (Basic Books; New York 2012); Ornstein, Let’s enact a new Voting Rights Act, Wash. Post (July 17, 2013).

[5] I originally made such a suggestion in 1996.