(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
President Obama earned one of the loudest rounds of applause during his fourth State of the Union address when he declared, “We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy: the right to vote.” He then appointed a commission to “fix” the problem of long lines at the polls. That might be a sufficient response to the one specific concern the president has chosen to focus on. But it’s an insufficient response to the structural crisis of American democracy. While Obama assures us that our right to vote is “God-given” and “fundamental,” that right is neither defined in nor guaranteed by the Constitution.
“We talk about a right to vote, and I think the vast majority of Americans believe that right exists. But the evidence of election after election, in state after state, is that the right is not protected; it’s under steady assault,” says John Bonifaz, the legal director of the national nonprofit Voter Action. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Eric Foner (a Nation editorial board member) puts it another way, arguing that American history is “not just a story of expanding the right to vote. It has expanded and contracted.”
The current US electoral process is not what democracy looks like. At least not if we go by the standard embraced by the vast majority of democratic nations. As Representative Keith Ellison notes, “Democracies around the world—old democracies, new democracies—have in their constitutions an affirmative right to vote. It’s remarkable to me that the United States does not have that guarantee in our Constitution. I think a lot of our problems come back to this issue.”
So Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is doing something about it. With Representative Mark Pocan, a newly elected Wisconsin Democrat, he is preparing to introduce a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. This is not the first time such an amendment has been proposed, and there will naturally be skepticism about the difficult prospects of revising the Constitution. But in a series of interviews with The Nation in which they detailed their plans, Ellison and Pocan displayed a passion for renewing and extending this essential democratic initiative at a time when Americans, they argue, are ready for constitutional clarity on voting rights.
Both congressmen have a track record on these issues: Ellison sponsored measures in the previous Congress addressing voter suppression, and Pocan led fights in the Wisconsin legislature against restrictive voter-ID laws and attempts to restrict Election Day registration. Those fights underpin their decision to seek a “Right to Vote” amendment, which they plan to introduce soon in the current Congress. “At a certain point, you realize there’s a need for something concrete, an absolute guarantee,” says Pocan. “We can’t leave it to chance anymore.”
Voting rights have too frequently been left to chance in the United States. Even as the franchise has been extended through constitutional and other federal initiatives, the administration of elections has been left to states with radically different standards. This makes no sense, considering the history of voting rights struggles. At the nation’s founding, the franchise was so rigidly restricted that historians estimate only about 6 percent of Americans—white male property owners of a certain age—could cast ballots. Over time, amendments have removed barriers to voting by African-American men (the Fifteenth Amendment, in 1870); women (the Nineteenth, in 1920); residents of the nation’s capital who seek to participate in presidential elections (the Twenty-third, in 1961); and 18- to 20-year-olds (the Twenty-sixth, in 1971). A substantial body of case law, as Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe notes, has been established on the side of voting rights, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But voting rights are now under assault in the courts and in Congress (and that includes the VRA itself, which is being challenged in a high-profile Supreme Court case that could gut its most vital provision; see Ari Berman in this issue. So, too, are many of the other advances that for a time had convinced most Americans that the fight for democracy had been won.