Note: This piece is cross-posted on the ACS Blog.
The Constitution can save us. Yes, the same document that gave us the electoral college, unfettered presidential pardons, and deadlock in Congress can be our democracy’s savior – but only if we as a society actively embrace it through political participation. That means registering to vote and exercising the franchise.
Sept. 17 was Constitution Day, a nationwide celebration of our founding document. Sept. 26 is National Voter Registration Day. These two days should cause all Americans to acknowledge the fundamental role that the Constitution and political participation plays to the foundation of our democracy. We all need to double down in our efforts to protect those sacred rights. And it need not require huge efforts or a ton of work: simply reminding your neighbor to register to vote can have a big impact.
In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd of Virginia – who was known for carrying a copy of the Constitution around with him in his pocket – promoted a provision of federal law that designates Sept. 17 as an annual celebration of the Constitution and requires public schools and governmental offices to provide educational programs about the Constitution.
These educational programs are needed now more than ever. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, in a recent survey, over one-third of Americans could not name any rights contained with the First Amendment, and only a quarter of Americans could name all three branches of government. Yet better education on these basic facts is vital if we are to overcome the current political environment. Americans need to understand how their government works and how to exercise their constitutional rights vigorously.
Various organizations are already doing great work on this front. The American Constitution Society runs a program called Constitution in Classroom, in which lawyers and law students visit primary and secondary schools across the country. The Constitution Center has various resources available. Colleges and universities all had programming. Go read the Constitution yourself. It’s only 7,591 words.
Yet just learning about the Constitution is not enough. We need to actively participate in our democracy, and that starts with voting. We seem to accept less than 60 percent turnout in our presidential elections and far lower turnout in state and local elections as perfectly normal. But the U.S. turnout rate is depressingly low, especially as compared to most other developed countries.
We can do better. We must do better. And that starts with registering to vote. There is little reason to wait until an election is upon us to exercise our democratic muscles. Use National Voter Registration Day to ensure your own registration is up to date, and then find a neighbor or friend to encourage as well. No one should be cut out of the process come Election Day simply because he or she did not register to vote in time.
National Voter Registration Day is also a good time to reflect upon the success of Oregon and other states in enacting automatic voter registration. Under this innovative system, states have the obligation to register voters using information in existing databases, such as the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Individuals can then “opt out” of voter registration if they wish. Oregon found that automatic voter registration increased turnout in the 2016 election significantly. Currently, 10 states and the District of Columbia have adopted automatic voter registration. More states should join the mix.
If we are truly going to sustain our democracy, particularly in these perilous times, then we need a better understanding of the Constitution and its principles. We need to foster a society that values robust civic education. We desperately need to increase voter turnout and engagement.
Only then will we be able to achieve, as the Constitution’s preamble desires, a “more perfect Union.”
By the way, the three branches of government that the Constitution creates are the legislative (Congress), executive (presidency), and judicial (the courts), and the First Amendment protects the right to freedom of religion, free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the ability to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Go use those, and other constitutional rights, to advocate for a democratic society of which you can be proud.
Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law, voting rights, and constitutional law. He is the co-editor of “Election Law Stories.” Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaADouglas. The opinions expressed are his own.