The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are you a logger, or does Tom Cotton think you shouldn’t vote?

Sen. Tom Cotton speaks on Capitol Hill in May. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

“Yes, Wyoming is smaller. … But it has three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing. In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded, working-class state.”

“Alaska provides more than 60 percent of the nation’s seafood.”

— Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), explaining his opposition to D.C. statehood

Well, this is much clearer! Here I was thinking that all the rationales for voter suppression and denying representation (Is voting by mail good or to be forbidden at all costs? Is two senators for 700,000 people perfectly just or a terrible slight not to be borne?) were starting to be confusing and transparently racist, but once again Tom Cotton has proved me incorrect. It all has to do with your proximity to key industries. You must log trees, not keystrokes; you must mine ore, not data. You must — well, he said it better than I possibly could, perhaps even as well as our Founders.

As the Declaration of Independence said, “All men are created equal, but those even tangentially involved in the production of seafood are more equal than others.” This matter of industries was actually the very thing Jefferson and Hamilton were always fighting about; Jefferson was saying that yeoman farmers should get 100 percent of the votes, and Hamilton was saying that they should save some votes for workers in manufacturing. Both, it turns out, were correct. (Hamilton, alas, perished before he could cast his first vote; he was trying to catch a fish on Weehawken, but Aaron Burr, knowing how powerful his franchise would be if he ever got to exercise it, was determined to stop him. The fish survived.)

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on June 25 criticized a House bill that would grant statehood to Washington, D.C. (Video: U.S. Senate)

You start to wonder how a great many states managed to enter the Union in the first place. Massachusetts has always been rich in fish, but it must have vexed John Adams not to be able to participate in the democratic process at all, given that his connection to that vital business was tenuous at best.

Follow Alexandra Petri's opinionsFollow

“Dear Abigail,” John Adams wrote to his wife, “alas for this country! I sought all day to Catch a Mammoth Cod but my effort was futile. My Net was cast in vain, but my Vote shall not be cast at All. I would that Providence had made me a logger or a worker in mining, logging and construction. I understand well why we specified that only Such ought to be Represented in this land, but it galls me.”

The popular slogan, “Taxation without representation is tyranny, unless you are not involved in the crucial industries of logging, mining and construction!” rang out across the land in those heady days, and people cheered wholeheartedly, understanding immediately that this was a logical basis on which to assign votes and not some sort of wafer-thin rationale that would be used for denying representation to the many hundreds of thousands of residents of a historically black city.

Before attempting to vote, as Cotton illustrates, you need only ask yourself a very simple set of questions: Are you a logger? Could you appear on the side of a set of paper towels? Are you a majestic redwood tree? Are you a big rock shaped like a human being? Are you several rocks? Are you an ear of corn waving in the wind? Are you somehow affiliated with the fishing industry? Are you a flag at half-staff on the top of a barn? Are you now or have you ever been a worker in mining and construction? Are you an enormous wheel of cheese? Are you a piece of map colored bright red? Do you represent what Tom Cotton would identify as a rich, robust, American industry? (This also includes things to do with horses or involving marveling at the land, staring off majestically over a large field your ancestors violently seized.)

The Founders’ rationale for this has yet to be discovered. The early days of deciding who counted as a state must have been difficult ones indeed. There were plenty of workers engaged in construction in the South, but the Constitution did not technically consider them to be people, so I am not sure how this issue was resolved. My guess is that Arkansas is still not a state, but I could be mistaken.

My point is, what Cotton has to say makes sense and I have no further questions. It is certainly not that he is harking back to a tradition as old and robust as American democracy, that if there are people you do not consider to be fully people in a certain place, you do not have to let them vote at all.

Watch Opinions videos:

Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty, and how our most venerated monuments can remind us of where America falls short. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sign up to receive Alexandra Petri’s columns by email as soon as they’re published

Read more from Alexandra Petri:

If we’d just given up on other things the way we have on the coronavirus

Some wins Trump can extract from his Tulsa rally

Here’s what a truly shocking revelation would sound like, John Bolton

Submit a question for Petri’s June 30 live chat

Read a transcript of Petri’s June 23 live chat