“A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessing of liberty.”
North Carolina Constitution, Article I, Section 35

The U.S. Constitution does not give Americans the right to vote. Voting is a right originating in the states; the U.S. Constitution, through its amendments, protects that right.

Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress broad authority to make or alter laws regarding the time, place, and manner of federal elections and voting.

Originally, only white male property owners were allowed to vote. Expanding the franchise was a long, hard-fought process. The 14th and 15th amendments, passed in 1868 and 1870 respectively, protect against racial discrimination. Women won the right to vote nationwide in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. The 26th Amendment extended voting rights to anyone 18 years of age or older.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides protection for African-Americans and American Indians in states with a history of discriminatory voting practices, including North Carolina. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the “Motor Voter” act), let qualified voters register when applying for driver’s licenses or social services, authorized mail-in voting, and allowed individuals to conduct registration drives. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, passed in the aftermath of the controversial election of George W. Bush, set standards for voting procedures, equipment, and poll worker training.

Eligibility to vote is determined by both federal and state law. All U.S. citizens have the right to vote under federal law, but each state determines its polling places and procedures. For example, seven states require voters to produce a photo ID before voting; the rest (including North Carolina) do not. Some allow convicted felons to vote from prison; some (including North Carolina) do not. In 2001, a bill was introduced in Congress that would have made voting requirements and rules uniform across the states, but it stalled.

Under the North Carolina Constitution, North Carolina elections “shall be held often,” “shall be free,” and “no property qualification shall affect the right to vote.” A North Carolina voter must be a U.S. citizen, 18 years old, and prior to voting must be a resident of the state for the past year and the county of registration for the past 30 days.

Elections and voting rights go back to the founding of our country and state. As with all rights, there are responsibilities. The founders entrusted a government by and for the people. Thomas Jefferson believed that informed voters were critical to the success and health of the republic and to preserve freedom, and this concern is largely responsible for the public school system we have (or wish we had) today.

As readers of Carolina Journal and followers of the John Locke Foundation know, making informed decisions as voters requires much more than consuming TV spots, slick mailers, and clever radio ads. The future of our tax system, debt, the quality and direction of education, regulatory burden, energy policy, and economic recovery all hinge on this election.

Each of us holds the right to vote and, if choosing to exercise that right, has the responsibility to cast an informed vote. In this election cycle, Oct. 12 is the deadline to register. Early voting begins Oct. 18, and the general election will take place Nov. 6.

The Founders designed a government run by the people. Let’s be sure we do the job they handed off to us well.

“Should things go wrong at any time, the people will set them to rights by the peaceable exercise of their elective rights.” Thomas Jefferson

Becki Gray (@beckigray) is vice president for outreach at the John Locke Foundation.