3-Minute Civics: Georgia’s got the Constitution on my mind

  • Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon, an Atlanta Democrat, is placed in handcuffs by state troopers after being asked to stop knocking on a door that led to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office while Kemp was signing a voting restriction bill. Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For the Monitor
Published: 4/3/2021 11:00:15 PM

What President Biden has called “Jim Crow in the 21st Century” is an opportunity to put modern voting rights fights in context of an ongoing and shared story to decide who is included in “we the people.”

There’s a lot going on with Georgia’s new 98-page voting law, including a prohibition on giving water to citizens waiting in line to vote and limits to where ballot drop boxes can be placed. Measures that have elicited parallels to the racist Jim Crow laws that led to the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in the 1960s.

According to democracy watchdogs, Georgia isn’t the only state where this is happening. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of late February more than 250 laws to restrict voting were proposed in 43 states, including 10 bills in New Hampshire. On the flip side, more than 700 bills to expand voting access were filed in as many states. There is also action federally with H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which passed the House of Representatives and would, among other things, nationalize the process for voter registration and mail-in voting in an effort to prevent state-specific countermeasures.

I’m with you if all of this leaves you scratching your head, not out of surprise that antidemocratic forces exist, but that their actions are even possible given the changes that have been made to the Constitution following the Civil War. However, we know there’s a difference between what’s written on paper and what’s actually practiced, particularly when power hangs in the balance. Politics trump governing, and the culture wars continually open fronts to legislate or adjudicate ideals tested and honored over time.

While we follow these stories on voting rights and the lawsuits being filed in response, we have an opportunity to connect with the larger story embedded in our Constitution and the amendments that have altered it. To help with that I’d like to borrow from an activity used in the classroom, courtesy of Dennis Perreault of Campbell High School, a past NH Council for Social Studies teacher of the year.

For this lesson you’ll need a copy of the Constitution (I say treat yourself to a pocket-sized one if you don’t have one, though the National Constitution Center has a great interactive version of the document) and some paper to keep track of things. Our guiding question: have the amendments been procedural or substantive in terms of creating or limiting people’s rights and liberties? Our focus area: the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (“except as a punishment for crime”) through the 27th Amendment.

Spanning 1865 through 1992, the amendments tell a story of a nation that redefined citizenship, doubled down on equal protection and due process, provided Black men the right to vote then waited another 50 years before women could vote nationally, authorized an income tax, changed the way senators are elected, banned booze then allowed booze, sorted out the start time of presidents’ new terms and limited them to two terms, gave the District of Columbia a voice in electing the person serving those terms, addressed what happens when a president can no longer serve, barred Congress from giving itself an immediate raise, and extended the right to vote to 18-year-olds and outlawed the Jim Crow practice of having to pay a tax at the poll in order to vote.

It’s a lot, so here’s a hint: you’ll find twice as many substantive amendments in favor of liberty as procedural amendments. Mostly, though, I hope you come away with a new or enhanced line of inquiry. As Mr. Perreault would have it, ask yourself what’s significant about that trend. And question why we’re seeing attempts to reverse it now and whether they signal a new trajectory or merely temporary victories of a desperate lot.

Correction: In my last column (“Everyday Due Process” 2/21), I incorrectly stated that due process is the only principle mentioned more than once in the Constitution. With thanks to the Hon. William Delker, associate justice for Hillsborough County Superior Court North, I can share that the right to trial by jury, ever near and dear to both of our hearts, appears three times.

(Adam Krauss teaches at Exeter High School)

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