The Right to Vote

The Right to Vote

Approve a Voting Rights Amendment to the Constitution, granting all the right to vote; craft a unitary voting system for federal, state and local elections, guaranteeing an honest and efficient count.


“The vote” is a human right. It is seen as an American right. In a democracy there is nothing more fundamental than having the right to vote.

And yet the right to vote is not a fundamental right in our Constitution. Some liberals argue that the fundamental right to vote for every American citizen is implied in the Constitution, based on Supreme Court precedent. Yet when I ask them about the denial of voting representation in Congress to District of Columbia citizens, or about the denial of ex-felons’ voting rights in most states, many liberals concede that the current structure of our Constitution limits the ability of the courts and Congress to adequately address important voting-rights issues.

It is amazing to me that many Democrats failed to grasp the most fundamental finding in Bush v. Gore: “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.”

Our voting system’s foundation is built on the sand of states’ rights and local control. We have fifty states, 3,141 counties and 7,800 different local election jurisdictions. All separate and unequal.

In four states, if you’re an ex-felon you’re barred from voting for life. There are 5 million Americans (including 1.8 million African-Americans, mostly in Southern states–where 55 percent of African- Americans live) who have paid their debt to society but are prohibited from voting. At the same time, in Maine and Vermont you can vote even if you’re in jail.

We need to build our voting system on a rock–the rock of adding a Voting Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. The amendment I have proposed in each of the last several Congresses (HJR 28) would provide the American people with a citizenship right to vote. It would also give Congress the authority to craft a unitary voting system for federal, state and local elections–one that guarantees all votes will be counted in a complete, fair, free and efficient manner.

Democrats have been made so defensive by right-wing Republicans’ constant stream of absurd amendments–anti-gay, antichoice, anti-flag “desecration”–that we’ve developed a negative rationale and posture about the Constitution: It’s fine just the way it is. But fights over “rights” and constitutional amendments are where elections are being won and lost. And when Democrats don’t fight for common laws, defending human rights, we’re just reaffirming states’ rights and local control, both of which are inherently separate and unequal.

Building a more perfect union by turning human rights into American rights–that’s what Democrats should be fighting for. Let’s wage this fight one issue at a time, rolling out a sort of second Bill of Rights. After the Voting Rights Amendment, we might add public education and equal-quality healthcare to every American’s citizenship rights. An equal rights for women amendment. An affordable-housing amendment. A clean, safe and sustainable environment amendment. A fair taxes amendment. A full-employment amendment. An amendment for direct election of the American President and Vice President.

Fighting for human and constitutional rights is a theme, and a strategy, that could keep Democrats together for the next fifty years, election after election. It’s time to begin a lofty fight to add the right to vote to the Constitution–and paint a truer picture of most Republicans as undemocratic. It’s time to stand up and insure every American’s right to vote to have that vote fully protected and to have it fairly counted.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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