Idiots can duel, but vote?... that's another thing

Friday, November 2, 2007

In 1844, when the framers of the New Jersey Constitution were preparing the document that would be the law of the land, they wanted to make sure that the right to vote was given to people who could understand what they were doing and were legally entitled to vote. In those days, voting was referred to as a "right of suffrage."

Next month, New Jersey voters will decide if early language that bans people with limited mental capacity from voting will be removed. The New Jersey Constitution reads: ''No idiot or insane person shall enjoy the right of suffrage.''

The ballot measure is whether to replace the wording in its Constitution with a phrase explaining how people deemed by a judge ''to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting'' would be barred from casting ballots.

Proponents for the disabled feel the wording is inaccurate and offensive.

Iowa is among seven other states that have the words "idiot" and "insane" in their Constitutions. Iowa's Constitution, drafted in 1857, says the following about people disqualified for the Right of Suffrage: "No idiot, or insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime, shall be entitled to the privilege of an elector."

There are two schools of thought at odds here. One says that the Constitution is a living, evolving, document and should be changed by a vote of the people when it becomes outdated. The other says that the document is a product of its time and should be taken as such.

Did you know that a qualified elector can not be arrested while going to a polling place on election day or while casting a ballot or returning home from the polling place? Until 1972, persons who participated in duels, either directly or indirectly, were forbidden from holding public office in Iowa.

Is "idiot" offensive? At one time, it had a specific clinical meaning. Along with imbecile and moron, the term referred to a specific measurable range of mental limitation, but the term "idiot" has long been used in a generally pejorative manner, so yes, it is offensive.

"Insane?" That is still used as a clinical term. Should the language be removed? That's up to the people, who can change the Constitution, by amending it. Just like they did in 1972 with the dueling thing.