About Your Right To Vote

Terrance Heath

Here’s something to discuss at the "Voter Suppression and the 2012 Election: The Civil Rights Movement to Take Back the Right to Vote, breakout session at the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, DC, October 3-4. Think you have a "right to vote"? Think again.

There is nothing in the constitution about a right to vote.

Most Americans believe that the "legal right to vote" in our democracy is explicit (not just implicit) in our Constitution and laws.  However, our Constitution only provides for non-discrimination in voting on the basis of race, sex, and age in the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments respectively.

The U.S. Constitution contains no explicit affirmative individual right to vote!

Last night, while researching my previous post I was reminded of something I learned a while back, when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was set to expire, and people mobilized to demand that Congress and then-president George W. Bush extend its provisions. (They did. The people had to demand that the Bush administration actually enforce it.) As the the above quote, from a position paper presented by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at the 2003 Center for Voting & Democracy’s "Claim Democracy Conference" spells out, the constitution has been amended to prohibit discrimination in voting.

That means that, while the constitution states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" (Article VI, Section III), it originally left the matter of determining the qualifications for voting up to the states.Well, we know where that led. Fortunately, the founders included a process for amending the constitution (Article V), giving us an opening to deal with social changes and challenges they couldn’t imagine in 1787, when they ratified the thing. (They even came and added the Bill of Rights two years later, because they realized they actually hadn’t covered everything.) They didn’t tie our hands and limit us only to what solutions they could imagine in 1787.

The founders’ greatest genius was creating a system of government not limited by their own individual imaginations. They may not have been able to imagine the complexities of financial instruments like derivatives or a financial sector that would wreak all manner of economic havoc with them, but they didn’t prohibit us from dealing with either. They may not have been able to imagine an energy industry capable of spilling millions of barrels of oil, but they did not bar us from regulating those industries in order to protect "the general welfare."

The founders probably couldn’t have imagined a lot about our present, but they provided for it. Understanding that the document they crafted was not a terminal document, they provided a process — however imperfect — that made all kinds of changes possible. From Barack Obama’s presidency to Bachmann’s seat in Congress.

That’s what conservatives would like to undo. If they could turn back time.

As Geoffrey Stone wrote in a 2010 New York Times op-ed, "The framers fully understood that they were leaving it to future generations to use their intelligence, judgment and experience to give concrete meaning to the expressed aspirations." They didn’t restrict us to applying only 18th or 19th century ideas to today’s problem.

It’s a good thing because, as Matt Yglesias pointed out the answer to the GOP’s war on voting is an explicit right to vote.

What we need is a right to vote that could clear away all this and all the voter fraud nonsense to boot. To say that an adult citizen of the United States has a presumptive right to have his say on Election Day and the government has a responsibility to ensure that they have that opportunity.

Well, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has proposed simple, elegant solution: H.J. Res. 28 — Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States regarding the right to vote.

The bill summary spells out its provisions:

Constitutional Amendment – Provides that all U.S. citizens who are eighteen years of age or older shall have the right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides. Allows the United States or any state to establish regulations narrowly tailored to produce efficient and honest elections.

Requires each state to:

(1) administer public elections in the state in accordance with election performance standards established by the Congress; and

(2) provide any eligible voter the opportunity to register and vote on the day of any public election. Requires Congress to reconsider election performance standards at least once every four years to determine if higher standards should be established to reflect improvements in methods and practices regarding election administration.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard about the bill until someone in the Congressman’s office read my previous post and called to tell me about it. But it sounds like good idea to me, one that should have more than its current 51 co-sponsors.

What member of congress would be opposed to establishing an affirmative right to vote for all American citizens? Wouldn’t it be interesting to promote this bill, as a response to the the right wing attempts to "teabag" the vote? Wouldn’t be even more interesting to urge Republican members of Congress to co-sponsor this legislation or, if they don’t, to demand that they explain why they’re against a right to vote for all American citizens?

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