Rockefeller College Celebrates Constitution Day 2020

Constitution Day

ALBANY, N.Y.  — On September 17, 1787, the Founding Fathers signed the most influential document in American history, the U.S. Constitution. In celebration of Constitution Day 2020, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy asked faculty and students the following question: What is the most pressing Constitutional issue facing our country today?

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What is the most pressing Constitutional issue facing our country today?

Bill Sisk, Public Administration PhD candidate

The most pressing Constitutional issue facing our nation today concerns the enduring legacy of its original purposes. Rife with contradictions, whatever affection we may accord its more aspirational passages and Bill of Rights, the document none-the-less represented a delicate and carefully crafted compromise on the institution of slavery. The unusually high fragmentation of power and multiple veto-points that the document constructed made evident both the founder’s hypersensitivity to the potential tyranny of centralized government power as well as their relative optimism that similar tyrannical power would note evolve from America’s private sphere. There was generally less anxiety about the development of private enterprises, with many assuming competition would keep them small and decentralized without need for much regulation or oversight. Even those who feared the creeping influence of money and large industry like Thomas Jefferson had their blind spots on this front. Jefferson ironically set out to build a country that was comprised of small, decentralized, agrarian societies with largely localized governance systems, a society that seemed remarkably similar to the Native American societies his own Louisiana purchase and other policy choices would rapidly begin eradicating to make way for the America we know today. 

Today, with so much turmoil, much of the public discourse has revolved around the threats posed to our cherished and hollowed Democratic institutions. It seems each day that our basic rights of voting and free speech which some of us — particularly those of us who have never had to fight for them — have taken for granted, are under attack. Yet it is time to re-examine some of the cherished and even foundational principles inscribed in our Democratic system because many of these structures have contributed to our present political predicaments. We should consider if our beloved “checks and balances” are actually contributing to a society that seems to be increasingly checkered and unbalanced. We should rethink an Electoral College system, which is arcane and disenfranchises members of both major political parties as well as alternative party candidates. We should rethink our Senate, which affords absurdly disproportional representation to Rhode Island, and Wyoming compared to more populous states like Florida and California. We should consider the many ways in which our Constitution ignores the corrosive influence of money on government in a society where the accumulation of capital dominates, and where such capital is easily exchanged for all other sources of power, including government. 

The most pressing Constitutional issue we face today is not the novel threats posed by present parties and circumstances — even if these should not be ignored — but rather some of the foundational elements of our Constitution. The government it created seems to be less and less representative of what many Americans actually need or desire. We need transformation, not protection or restoration. We need to move beyond merely defending the Constitution and reform it so that it truly defends all its citizens.  

Julie Novkov, Professor of Political Science

On this Civics 101 Podcast, Professor Julie Novkov discusses the topic of birthright citizenship and the 1898 Supreme Court case that established it.

Birthright Citizenship: US v Wong Kim Ark

UAlbany Student Constitution Day Essay Contest

Current UAlbany students were invited to participate in a creative writing essay contest to commemorate Constitution Day, answering the prompt: There are four different amendments to the Constitution that relate to the right to vote — what is one action that could be taken to ensure all citizens can exercise their right to vote? Public policy major Jacob Weissenburg earned first place with his essay, featured below, and won a $250 Visa gift card. Patrick Barnett, Yehuda Sprei, and Jalen Wri were named honorable mention, each receiving a $100 Visa gift card. 

Jacob Weissenburg, Winning Essay

Following her election loss, gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams said, Voter suppression works its might by first tripping and causing to stumble the unwanted voter, then by convincing those who see the obstacle course to forfeit the race without even starting to run. Along with her race in Georgia, elections across the entire nation are consistently riddled with institutionalized voter suppression. Examples of this include voters waiting in line for hours to cast their vote, limited polling sites, and voter registration restrictions. These obstacles make voting a burden, turning potential voters away. Although there have been four different constitutional amendments that address voting rights, Americans still face obstacles to voting that must be removed. There are many feasible actions that can be taken to ensure all citizens can exercise their right to vote, such as extending time off for students and employees on election day, and mandating additional poll sites. The most influential action that can be taken, however, is to enact Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) on a national level. This action would greatly expand access to voting, make it less of a burden, and boost voter turnout in elections. Automatic Voter Registration is a powerful tool for increasing voter turnout. In today’s system, citizens must seek voter registration on their own time once they become eligible to vote. This leads to a large number of people to abandon the idea of voting, as getting registered is considered a burden. Taking away this obstacle by enacting AVR, which automatically registers citizens once they turn 18, would therefore greatly increase voter turnout. Automatic Voter Registration is not an unattainable goal. In fact, eight states in the U.S. had implemented AVR prior to the 2018 midterm elections, and the result was an increased voter turnout, especially among youth voters. (Tufts University, 2019). AVR would eliminate the obstacle of having to register oneself, therefore minimizing the burden that voting places on citizens. In the 2018 midterm elections, only 31% of America’s eligible 18 to 29-year-olds voted on Election Day. Though this was a ten-point increase from four years prior, comprehensive action must be taken to continue this upward trend of voter turnout. (Volpe, 2018). The late U.S. Representative John Lewis once said, The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it. Lewis understood the importance of voting in democracy, and it is the duty of every citizen to vote and protect this right. Enacting Automatic Voter Registration on a national level in the United States is an action that will do just that.

Works Cited
John Della Volpe, Historic Turnout and Performance by Young Voters, Harvard Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics, November 7th, 2018. Final Analysis of State by State Youth Voter Turnout Shows Increases Across the Country, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, Tufts University, May 20, 2019.

UAlbany News: Rockefeller College student advocates automatic voter registration to win Constitution essay