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Ratification

10/10/05 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) There has been great controversy over recent efforts to rig the vote on the Iraqi constitution. But commentator Vic Henningsen says we shouldn't be surprised.

(HENNINGSEN) When Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish leaders wanted to ensure passage of the proposed constitution in this week's nation- al referendum, they tried to create new rules. They announced it would take two-thirds of registered voters, rather than actual voters, in three provinces to kill the document. Since more people are registered than will actually vote, that measure would have virtually guaranteed ratification.

This led to outraged charges of vote fixing and fraud. "This is a mockery of democracy," cried one Sunni politician.

Indeed it was, but it would have worked. We shouldn't be too surprised, since similar tactics were used with some frequency during the struggle to ratify our own constitution back in 1788.

That contest was waged in state conventions between "Federal- ists," who favored ratification, and "Anti-Federalists," who opposed the Constitution's consolidation of power. Anti-Federalists were almost certainly in the majority. They liked the existing govern- ment under the Articles of Confederation: it left them alone.

Federalists thought more nationally. They worried that a govern- ment that couldn't tax, couldn't regulate commerce, couldn't defend against foreign enemies, and couldn't put down internal revolts was not likely to last, no matter how popular. They had the better argument. But they didn't have the numbers.

What they did have was more experienced leadership, better organization, and a willingness to bend or break the rules.

To call a state convention you needed a legislative quorum.
In Pennsylvania, Federalists used street gangs to force the attendance of enough opposing lawmakers to meet that requirement.

When Pennsylvanians sought to read about the debate, Federalists bought up the papers so that only their side
was reported.

Because John Hancock controlled many Massachusetts votes, Federalists shamelessly, and successfully, appealed to his vanity, suggesting that the vice-presidency, even possibly the presidency, might be his.

A number of Anti-Federalist towns in Massachusetts were too poor to send delegates. "Too bad," said the Federalists, about a convention that did not fully reflect the electorate.

If New York didn't ratify, Alexander Hamilton threatened the secession of New York City.

Federalist methods, high and low, carried the day, aided by pro- perty qualifications for voting that ensured that less than 25% of the population actually participated. Even so, theirs was a narrow victory.

To be sure, violence was largely restricted to the rhetoric and ratification provoked a national debate over the nature of govern- ment, a debate that included the Federalist Papers, still the best treatise on the Constitution. But to regard ratification simply as an exercise in high-minded debate about political theory is to ignore reality. Ratifying a constitution is a solemn act, but it is also a political act. And no one can guarantee that it will be fair.

This is Vic Henningsen in Thetford Center.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.


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