Defending American democracy
The American democratic system has come under assault at both ends — from the ballot box to the three-branch system of government. Conservatives in Florida have tried to reimpose what is essentially the poll tax in order to prevent former felons from voting. At the head of the U.S. government, Donald Trump has governed with minimal regard to restrictions imposed by the U.S. Constitution, which established three equal branches of government.
There are now only two states that summarily disenfranchise felons — Kentucky and Iowa. Virginia was on the list until Gov. Terry McAuliffe performed a mass enfranchisement of felons in April 2016. The law stated that the civil rights of a felon released from prison had to be restored by the governor or other appropriate official. McAuliffe personally restored the voting rights of 168,000 citizens, so now the process is essentially automatic.
In Florida, felons were deprived of the vote for life when they left prison, until a law called Amendment 4 was passed on Nov. 6, 2018. This law returned suffrage to citizens except for those convicted of murder or sexual abuse. However, Republicans have imposed the additional requirement that felons released from prison also have to pay all outstanding fees and bills owed to the state or the county before they can vote. Democrats have argued that this requirement is essentially a poll tax in disguise.
The foundation of the nation’s democratic system is to provide an opportunity for every citizen to vote. However, rather than relying exclusively on the persuasiveness of their proposals, the Republican Party seems to rely on voting restrictions and gerrymandering to influence election results.
In order for the nation’s democracy to function properly, it is not enough to monitor only the election process. The impeachment investigation indicates that citizens have to be equally diligent about the behavior of the person elected to the White House.
In many countries the objective of the chief of state is to enrich himself and his family. The power of the government is employed for that purpose. Our Founding Fathers were well aware of this possibility, so they crafted a constitution that established rules and principles to make such conduct more difficult.
The Legislature (House and Senate) makes the laws, which become effective with the approval of the president. The president then executes the laws. However, the Legislature controls the nation’s funds, which creates a continuing oversight of management.
The third branch of government, the judicial system, defines the law and resolves disputes between the executive and the Legislature as well as complaints of citizens against the branches of government. However, serious violations alleged against the president or others holding high office are not always reviewed in courts of law, but may be subject to impeachment.
There have been only three prior efforts to impeach a president. One element that makes the process of impeachment difficult to understand is the way it differs from a criminal indictment. The accusation in impeachment is much broader than the language of a statue creating a criminal offense. The Constitution cites “high crimes and misdemeanors” as the legal basis for removing a president from office.
Impeachment is fraught with considerable dangers to the republic. It is not a process to be used indiscriminately. Removal of a duly elected but generally unpopular president from office reverses the result of an election. On the other hand, those in power, usually of the opposing party of the president, must not tolerate improper conduct that threatens the welfare of the nation.
The power of the impeachment process rests initially in the House of Representatives. Speaker Nancy Pelosi wisely decided not to pursue impeachment earlier on the basis of Donald Trump’s objectionable personal conduct, deferring until there were more offensive matters affecting the national interest.
Aware citizens are now shocked by reports of Trump’s betrayal of the nation. It is good to remember that a democratic republic is effective only if the citizens remain informed and active. The impeachment process requires the careful examination of the evidence. Citizens must remain attentive until the final decision of the U.S. Senate.