Bryce R. Nolan

The only people who have the necessary level of social responsibility to vote intelligently are those who have demonstrated a willingness to place themselves in the line of fire to protect their society. At least, that is the central philosophy of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic, controversial novel, Starship Troopers.[1] The right to votethe “sovereign franchise”—is exclusive to military veterans of the “Federal Service.” The book’s society—the “Terran Federation”—claims to have strong justifications for restricting the vote in this way. These justifications reveal how a society thinks about to whom it should extend the right to vote.

The Federation’s philosophy places the human survival instinct as the ultimate source of moral behavior.[2] Thus, to the Federation, the scaling-up of that model of morality to the national level provides, at least to them, the only effective way to create serious, rational voters. The Federation’s citizens scoff at the folly of so-called ‘unlimited democracies.’ Specifically, they question the wisdom of a universal franchise absent a method of ensuring that the franchise is exercised responsibly while still acknowledging the historical restrictions that human societies have placed on the right to vote.[3] In this way, the Federation claims to be not too dissimilar to those previous human societies but instead is merely applying the same principle in a better way. The restrictions listed in the book as examples should be familiar to students of history.

Even the most egalitarian reader cannot help but feel compelled by the assuredness of the convictions of the book’s society and the obvious premium that it places on the dual values of democracy and civic engagement. While the book’s politics can, and probably should, give us pause, it serves as a sobering reminder of the decisions a democracy must make in determining the franchise’s furthest limits and in contemplating the obstacles that exist in the way of voting.

The United States has a long and contentious history with the right to vote. For example, the motivating incident of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which extended the right to vote to eighteen-year-olds, was the Vietnam War and the military draft employed to prosecute it. The common logical justification for the Amendment was one of fairness: if a person was old enough to be forced to fight for their country, then they ought to be old enough to vote for its leaders.[4] But even this position was criticized by those who doubted that eighteen-year-olds had the requisite maturity, knowledge, and responsibility to vote.[5] That said, compelling arguments exist to lower the federal voting age even further.[6] These arguments point out that, in terms of the cognition necessary to make rational decisions about how to vote, there is no significant difference between someone who is sixteen and someone who is forty.[7] These discussions relate to one of the key concerns of Heinlein’s writing in Starship Troopers: the catastrophic effects of undisciplined voting.

Heinlein, however, approaches this problem from an oblique angle. His book is solely concerned with the quality of voters and does not consider the possibility that access to the vote itself may engender its considered use. The key criterion for voting intelligently is the ability to rationally comprehend one’s place in the community and to recognize the importance of voting in advancing democracy. This is a low threshold, and that’s the point.

One of the most controversial areas of voting rights is felon disenfranchisement. The current landscape of this issue varies wildly from state to state.[8] The National Conference of State Legislatures noted that despite the historical precedent of excepting felons from the election process, the general trend has been towards reinstatement. The justifications for the practice of felon disenfranchisement have their origins in Jim Crow era attempts to thwart the Fifteenth Amendment. Alabama’s 1901 Constitutional Convention, for example, explicitly sought to do so by enshrining the disenfranchisement of those who commit crimes of “moral turpitude.”[9] The success of efforts to re-enfranchise felons, or anyone in some stage of the prison system, may be judged by their participation in elections. In Cook County, Illinois, for example, prisoners in the county jail voted in a recent primary at a higher rate than Chicago itself.[10] If nothing else, this controversy demonstrates that, regardless of justification, efforts to restrict voting based on supposed moral character are far too easily abused to be beneficial.

Just as every right implies a responsibility, every vote obligates the voter to consider his or her decision in the polling booth carefully. It is that capacity which distinguishes a good voter. Heinlein’s concerns may have been eloquent and his ideas provocative, but a rather unflattering opinion of democracy is necessary to sustain a belief in rigid restrictions on voting. If a person can think about what they want and what may be best for the community, then that is where the discussion about whether they are qualified to vote should end.

[1] Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers 192 (1959).

[2] Id. at 195.

[3] Id. at 191.

[4] Joshua A. Douglas, In Defense of Lowering the Voting Age, 165 U. Pa. L. Rev. Online 63, 65 (2017).

[5] E.g., William G, Carleton, Teen Voting Would Accelerate Undesirable Changes in the Democratic Process in Amendment XXVI: Lowering the Voting Age 49-55 (Sylvia Engdahl ed., 2010).

[6] Douglas, supra note 4 at 66, 67, 68.

[7] Id. at 64.

[8] For example, Vermont and Maine have no restrictions on voting related to criminal status. In Virginia, a 2020 Executive Order gave the right to vote back to ex-prisoners upon the completion of their sentence. This Order was reversed in 2023 by Governor Glenn Youngkin. In Wyoming, first-time non-violent felons may apply to have voting rights restored upon the completion of their sentence, plus probation or parole, but for all other felons the only way to vote again is to be pardoned.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

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