Americans Currently Donâ€™t Have The â€˜Rightâ€™ To Vote
Just below the political radar there's a basic democratic question being discussed or fiercely debated among academics, civil rights leaders and politicians from both political parties. The question? Is the individual right to vote guaranteed in our Constitution?
Bush v. Gore (2000) said, "the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States." Thus, the simple answer appears to be "no."
Others, Harvard Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe among them, argue that the "equal protection" and "non-discrimination in voting" clauses of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and Supreme Court precedents since Brown (1954), can be construed to grant the individual citizen the fundamental right to vote in the Constitution.
On July 1, during a Q & A session at the RainbowPUSH Coalition Convention in Chicago, former President Bill Clinton, after careful questioning, acknowledged, constitutionally, we have a voting system largely based on "states' rights" and he supported adding an individual voting rights amendment to the Constitution.
August 6, at the UNITY: Journalists of Color Convention, Roland Martin asked President George W. Bush: "In your remarks you said that 8 million people in Afghanistan registered to vote, and as you said, exercised their God-given right to voteâ€”That may be a right from God, but it's not guaranteed in the U.S. Constitutionâ€”And in this age of new constitutional amendments, will you endorse a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American the right to vote in federal elections?" President Bush responded: "I'll consider it."
In light of the fact that the current Constitution allows state legislatures, not individual voters, to select electors to elect the President through the Electoral College - as Florida's legislature threatened to do in 2000 if Gore had won the most popular votes - it would be wise for Democrats, Kerry-Edwards, indeed, anyone who believes in democracy, to see the value of adding an individual voting rights amendment to the Constitution and no longer allow "states' rights" almost absolute control over our election process.
I'm convinced that if Congress had the will, under our current Constitution, it could do much more to strengthen the administration of a unitary voting system, and protect and fully count all votes. Most Americans are unaware, however, that, nationally, according to a joint study by Cal-Tech and MIT, somewhere between four and six million votes were not counted in 2000 because many states had similar problems to what occurred in Florida. My state of Illinois was the worst.
But I'm unconvinced, absent a voting rights amendment, that any solutions to our most pressing voting rights problems will be universal or sustainable. How can we achieve equal protection in 13,000 separate and unequally administered voting jurisdictions?
For example, I was born in South Carolina, raised in Illinois and went to college in North Carolina. While a resident in each of those states, the simple fact that I'm an American entitled me to representation by two Senators and a Representative. However, while working in Congress I live in DC where American citizens - with the same obligation to pay taxes and willingness to fight and die in defense of our nation - experience taxation without voting representation in Congress. They are equal American citizens in obligation but treated unequally politically. They've tried political enfranchisement through a constitutional amendment, an "equal protection" lawsuit, and statehood through the Congress, only to be rejected. An individual voting rights amendment would give them equal citizenship status and entitle them to equal representation in Congress.
Most Americans are aware that in 2000 Florida removed over 50,000 voters claiming, erroneously, they were ex-felons. Florida recently tried the same stunt again. Nationally, nearly five million ex-felons, who have fully paid their debt to society, are permanently barred from voting. As a legacy of slavery, such laws are disproportionately in the South where fifty-three percent of African Americans live. Only a voting rights amendment can overcome many states determination to exclude them.
Without an individual voting rights amendment, any law Congress passed would only apply to federal elections, not state and local elections.
And if the individual right to vote is already in the Constitution, why didn't it take precedent over Florida's arbitrary December 12 deadline to count all the votes? In my view, constitutionally, states' rights overruled the individual's right to have their vote counted.
Finally, wouldn't individual voting rights be stronger and more secure if the right to vote was explicitly in the Constitution rather than implicitly constructed to be there?
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. is a Congressman from Illinois (D-IL-2)
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