In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day as a day of national dedication to the principles of government under law. In 1961, Congress, by joint resolution, designated May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day.
The 2014 Law Day theme is: American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters. This theme highlights the importance of voting and of ensuring that our nation’s election laws and practices permit the broadest, least restrictive access to the ballot box. When an eligible voter is deprived of the opportunity to cast a ballot, the harm is not only to that voter, but also to our government, which becomes that much less representative of the people. In a nation governed by democratic principles, every vote is vital.
This Law Day occurs on the eve of the 50th anniversaries of two landmark pieces of legislation - the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Speaking on the Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson observed, “Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”
There are no specific voter qualifications contained within the text of the Constitution. The Framers left that topic up to the states. For this reason, the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right of African American men to vote and the 19th Amendment guaranteeing the right of women to vote are not phrased as grants of the right to vote, but instead as prohibitions on preventing individuals from voting because of their race or sex.
The right to vote is the foundation of our representative democracy. It is the very essence of government by the people. When voters participate in free and fair elections, they reinforce the legitimacy of the rule of law.
The need for advocacy and action is well documented. A recent report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration noted numerous instances of six hour waits at the polls during the 2012 presidential election. Among factors leading to the long wait times were poor planning, lack of alternative voting options, inadequate supply of voting machines, and technology malfunctions. Other factors included long and extensive ballots, sudden changes to voting laws, and lapses in poll worker training.
The problems experienced in the 2012 election were not an aberration. Over the years, such issues have resulted in excessive burdens on citizens who seek to participate in the nation’s civic life. However, widespread administrative glitches, confusing inconsistencies in voting requirements, and unnecessary barriers to the polls are really unacceptable in a modern, mature democracy like the United States.
Regardless of your party affiliation, your vote is critical in shaping the policy and future of your community and this great nation. And as we prepare to mark Law Day 2014, let’s reflect on the challenges we face to ensure that all Americans have an opportunity to participate equally in economic and civic life.