When Rachel Maddow interviewed the Democratic presidential contenders in South Carolina last week, she asked Bernie Sanders about voter suppression. The Vermont senator responded by decrying those who would erect barriers to voting as “political cowards” and proposed a go-big response: “we have got to pass legislation—maybe even a constitutional amendment that says that everybody in America who is 18 years of age, or older, is registered to vote. End of discussion.”
That was the boldest statement of the evening when the candidates sat down for one-on-one interviews with the MSNBC host. Yet Sanders is not alone in his concern. There is no question that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley are deeply concerned about the crisis that has developed since, as Clinton correctly notes, the US Supreme Court undermined the Voting Rights Act protections and sent “a message to leaders that they could begin to try to find new ways to interfere in the right to vote.”
O’Malley bluntly declares that “voting in America is becoming harder—not easier—thanks to a concerted effort by Republican activists to suppress the vote.”
So the candidates have areas of agreement regarding the crisis. Good. Now, let’s get some clarity regarding their plans for addressing it.
This is a necessary discussion and moderators at the second Democratic debate tonight in Des Moines—and at future Democratic and Republican debates and forums–have a real opportunity to expand and clarify the discourse.
Americans need to know how engaged the candidates of both parties are with the most basic questions of democratic engagement, and how determined they are to address the issues that arise.
The discussion should include a consideration of a constitutional intervention to create a universal guarantee, as even the Voting Rights Act at full strength did not begin to provide all the protections that were needed for those seeking to cast ballots.
“Amazingly enough, we do not have in our Constitution the right to vote as a constitutional right,” Sanders explained after last week’s forum. “We leave it up to the states. That’s where I get passionately upset.”
It has gotten a lot of other people upset, as well. Ever since the Florida recount fiasco of 2000, civil-rights and voting-rights activists have been agitating for a substantial extension of voting rights protections—up to and including a constitutional amendment.