Time for a 'Right to Vote' Constitutional Amendment
It was a sound proposal, very much in sync with the fact that, as Raskin argued, “at least 135 nations—including our fellow North American countries, Canada and Mexico—explicitly guarantee citizens the right to vote and to be represented at all levels of government.” But it wasn’t in sync with the moment in Washington. Less than a year after the 2000 election, the 9/11 terrorist attacks sent President George W. Bush’s approval rating up to 90 percent. Republicans were not about to entertain discussions on whether a dysfunctional election system had played a role in making Bush president, and Democrats were not inclined to pick any fights. The amendment proposal, introduced in each new Congress through the 2000s, would eventually attract more than fifty co-sponsors. But it never gained real traction or more than cursory attention. The solution was there, but few seemed to notice it.
As the years passed, Democratic politicians and more than a few activists became very good at diagnosing, and sometimes even addressing, symptoms of democratic decay. But they never got to the heart of the matter. Now, Bonifaz argues, Americans are more than ready to accept that we lack a coherent and consistent set of standards for registering voters, casting ballots, counting ballots and (if necessary) recounting them.
No matter what the Supreme Court decides on the Voting Rights Act, it is vital to remember that the VRA covers only some states. Its protections extend to Alabama, for example, but they’ve never covered neighboring Tennessee. Some counties in North Carolina are included; others are not. Two townships in Michigan must get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before they can tinker with “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting,” but none of the state’s urban centers face such a requirement. And that’s just the beginning of the inconsistencies. Different states have different rules for voter registration and for casting and counting votes. With thousands of jurisdictions taking charge of separate aspects of the voting process, and with partisans looking for every opportunity to game the rules to the advantage of their party or candidates, little about a US election is as fixed or certain as most citizens imagine. It should come as no surprise, then, that every cycle brings a new flood of irregularities, and with them doubts about the validity of the process.
“None of this is consistent with ‘equality for all, democracy for all,’” says Bonifaz, who was honored with a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for his pioneering work with the National Voting Rights Institute. “It cannot be that our answer to Americans who face long lines at the polls is that you just have to accept these barriers because you don’t live in the right state. It cannot be our answer to Americans who face voter-ID restrictions and registration challenges that they are out of luck because of where they live.”
Bitter experience is leading those who cherish democracy to recognize that wrangling over piecemeal reforms will not solve the deeper problem. We have not made the great leap forward on this issue because we haven’t demanded it loudly and aggressively enough. How many election cycles are we going to go through before we accept the necessity of constitutional repair? How many fights about long lines at the polls? How many struggles to maintain early voting? How many disputes over same-day registration? How many battles will have to be fought merely to assure that the promise of the franchise is made real for every American? The sense that America must do something more is what makes Ellison and Pocan think it’s time to introduce a new Right to Vote amendment—one based on the proposal of a decade ago, but tweaked to respond to new concerns and a new sense of urgency.
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A Right to Vote amendment won’t solve all our voting problems. (Bonifaz is a leading advocate for another amendment, one that would restore the ability of Congress to regulate corporate spending on political campaigns, which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.) And it certainly won’t be easy to garner approval for such an amendment from the Republican-controlled House or from states where legislators are still busy enacting voter-ID laws. But the campaign will focus attention on the fundamental threat to voting rights—and if strong coalitions of civil rights, community and labor groups are formed to fight for the amendment, and if the volume is turned up to the right level, the battle can be waged from a position of strength. “A constitutional amendment becomes an organizing tool, a way to rally people around an idea. This is an idea that is well worth rallying around at a point when there is a full frontal assault on the right to vote,” Ellison tells me.
He’s not alone in that view. Organizations like FairVote have long supported a Right to Vote amendment. Now they’re ramping up their advocacy with a new “Promote Our Vote” campaign that encourages grassroots organizing to pass local, state and national resolutions “with the ultimate goal of enshrining an affirmative right to vote in the US Constitution.” Progressive Democrats of America, a group closely aligned with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is working with Ellison and Pocan to make the amendment fight an important part of new organizing projects. And it won’t stop there. With civil rights groups now focusing on voter disenfranchisement, and unions like the Communications Workers of America committing resources to democracy fights, Ellison says he sees the amendment as part of a broader push for voting rights.
Just as conservatives have used the campaign for a balanced-budget amendment to focus attention on fiscal issues, and just as feminists capitalized on the movement to enact the Equal Rights Amendment to pass an array of initiatives beneficial to women and girls, so a Right to Vote amendment, even if it is never enacted, can highlight the need for—and strengthen the chance of passing—stronger and more consistent voting rights protections at the local, state and national levels.
“People have been through these fights on voter ID, long lines; we have seen what’s at stake. I think people are waking up to the fact that this thing we thought was so settled is not settled,” Ellison says. “It’s obvious we’ve got to play some offense here. As bold as they are to deny the right to vote, we have to be just as bold for the right to vote.”
Ari Berman writes that the Voting Rights Act is as necessary today as it was in 1965, when Alabama state troopers beat freedom marchers in Selma.