If you want to get people riled up, threaten to mess with the Constitution, or at least, what they think is in the Constitution.

Two letters regarding recent discussions by the Portland Charter Commission are a case in point:

“Regarding voting,” writes a reader from Scarborough, “The U.S. Constitution states that U.S. Citizens and naturalized citizens are the only ones eligible to vote.

“If others wish to vote, they must become U.S. citizens.”

A similar sentiment comes from another Scarborough man, who writes with great passion and much punctuation:

“If you are NOT A CITIZEN you can’t vote!!! What’s the matter with this country? We have a Constitution for a reason! READ IT!! If you are not trying to become a U.S. Citizen, then you shouldn’t be here anyway! When you become a citizen then you can vote, BUT NOT UNTIL THEN!!!!!”

Reading the Constitution sounds like a good idea, but if you do, you won’t find anything written in block capital letters followed by five exclamation points, or anything about being a citizen before you can vote. It’s just not there.

It does say that “the people will elect” their representatives, but it doesn’t say how they are supposed to do it or even who “the people” are. For the first century or so of our history, women weren’t included, and in some states black people didn’t make the cut of “the people” until a century after they were officially enfranchised at the end of the Civil War.

The Constitution does say who you can’t prohibit from voting, like, say, anyone 18 or older. But it leaves the rest of the business of setting the rules up to the states, and if Maine wants to let 6-year-olds vote, get ready for a landslide win for the “Eat Dessert First Party.”

A very helpful resource on what is not in the U.S. Constitution is available on a Web page called “Things that are not in the U.S. Constitution,” found on www.usconstitution.net.

Among the bedrocks of our democracy that were somehow left off our founding document are the phrases “separation of church and state,” and “trial by a jury of your peers,” or terms like “filibuster” and its evil twin, “reconciliation.”

The real document calls for a presidential selection process that sounds more like a party game than what we do every four years. The Constitution sets the rules, but it also lets us change them.

Voter eligibility is a hot issue these days because some members of the Portland Charter Commission would like to send a question to the city’s voters that would allow non-citizens who are legal residents of the city, state and country to vote in municipal elections.

Right now they are no more allowed to fill out a ballot in Portland than those two exercized letter writers from Scarborough, even though the immigrants live here, pay taxes and send their kids to school.

Whether something is or isn’t in the Constitution is relevant to the conversation because citizenship sets a high standard when it comes to civic literacy that a lot of already-citizens can’t meet. To become a citizen you just don’t take an oath, you have to take a test with questions like this one (citizens-from-birth can play along at home).

“Who has the power to declare war?” The answer is Congress. Don’t feel bad if you got it wrong, the last nine presidents didn’t know either.

“Which of the following amendments does NOT address or guarantee voting rights, the 19th, 24th, 15th or 7th?”

Um, I’m sorry, I was told that there would no math.

Plenty of people who will legally go to the polls next November will not know the answers to these questions. And they will probably do no worse a job of picking a city councilor than their neighbors who can answer them.

As Portland Charter Commission member Laurie Davis said last week, requiring citizenship for voting is a de facto reintroduction of the “literacy tests,” which were used in the Jim Crow South. Black voters were prevented from registering if they could not answer erudite literary questions, while illiterate whites went to the polls unchallenged.

Why should one set of residents have to know how many amendments there are in the Constitution, while another group gets to go right in, pounding their chests about amendments that exist only in their minds?

It would be reasonable for a state like Maine, which lets murderers vote in prison by absentee ballot, to give legal, permanent residents a say in who represents them on the School Committee.

Which is not to say that the Portland Charter is the place to fix this. Citizenship may not be a requirement for voters in the U.S. Constitution, but it is definitely there in state law.

According to Title 21-A, Chapter 3, Subchapter 2, Section 111, in order to vote in any election in a municipality a person must be of age, a resident, registered to vote — and a citizen of the United States.

It seems that before the city picks an expensive fight in the courts, activists should focus on getting this changed in the Legislature.

After all, that’s where they make the laws. And that is in the Constitution. I’m pretty sure.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: [email protected]