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Redefining the 'active' voter

City Sage



We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Two hundred and thirty-seven years later, those words still inspire not only for what they say but for what they imply. Thomas Jefferson enumerated three unalienable rights, but made it clear that other such rights existed. He left the task of determining them to generations yet unborn.

The right to vote may not stem from the Creator, but no constitutionally determined right has been so debated, so codified and so contested as the right of Americans to cast votes for their elected representatives. Since the Constitution was first ratified, six separate amendments have amplified and extended the franchise. State and local governments may not deny the right to vote to citizens 18 and older on account of age, sex, race, color, failure to pay poll tax, or previous condition of servitude — but that leaves plenty of wiggle room.

Decades ago, white Southerners led the way in preventing unwelcome elements from exercising their constitutional rights. So-called "literacy tests," administered at the whim of election officials, were used to prevent African-Americans from registering, and if that didn't work there was always the Ku Klux Klan.

Such crude intimidation has largely vanished, replaced by sophisticated techniques of voter suppression: State legislatures, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, gleefully redraw the boundaries of legislative districts to disadvantage their opponents. But there's a fundamental difference between the two parties regarding access to the polls.

Democrats and moderate Republicans benefit from high turnout. Minorities and young voters do not vote in the same percentages as the older, whiter tea party base. If minorities and young adults turn out, in Republican caucuses or general elections, right-wingers go down.

So what must a right-leaning strategist do? Try to keep these folks away from the polls. Make voting inconvenient and difficult in lefty neighborhoods, forcing voters wait in line for hours. Manufacture allegations of extensive voter fraud to discourage independent voter-registration drives. Prevent unaffiliated voters from voting in primaries.

Too bad for the tea partiers — Barack Obama was more than a match for the well-funded Republican yokels who felt yesterday's campaign strategy would elect yesterday's candidate. That defeat stung, but right-wingers won't slink off to the nursing home. They know political power is built precinct by precinct, county by county — and you always must protect your base.

Next week, every Colorado Springs resident who voted in the presidential election will receive a mail-in ballot for the April 2 municipal election. That's because the county clerk defines an "active" voter as a person who voted in the most recent general election. This isn't some sinister right-wing plot to prune the voting rolls — it's more a matter of administrative convenience.

Yet it's scarcely insignificant.

The voter rolls now include first-time voters as well as those who rarely vote in off-year elections. Come November 2014, many may ignore what promises to be a statewide snoozer, since neither Gov. John Hickenlooper nor Sen. Mark Udall is likely to face serious opposition. If that happens, many thousands of 2012 voters won't receive mail ballots in April 2015.

Does that matter? It might. Two years from now, voters will choose a mayor and three at-large Councilors. Changes in the city charter might be proposed, and there will be a runoff if no mayoral candidate gets a majority in the first go-round. Those "inactive" voters might make a difference.

In the past, Colorado Springs voters have chosen moderate, reasonably progressive candidates such as Sallie Clark, Mary Lou Makepeace, Richard Skorman, Steve Bach and Terry Maketa. Of course, they've also chosen Douglas Bruce and Doug Lamborn.

Our nonpartisan Council can remedy the problem by passing an ordinance declaring that everyone who votes in any election be deemed an active voter for at least four years. Simple enough if you believe in the right to vote. Not so simple if you believe, as George Orwell might have put it, that "all voters are equal, but some voters are more equal than others."

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