Even as the rising American electorate gains momentum, new regressive laws, rulings, and maneuvers are threatening voting rights without facing the strict scrutiny that would come with an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), stripping the Justice Department of the powers it had for five decades to curb racial discrimination in voting. Congress has effectively neutered the Elections Assistance Commission. And many schools skip civic education, contributing to the decline in voter turnout in local and primary elections.
Enshrining an explicit right to vote in the Constitution would guarantee the voting rights of every citizen of voting age, ensure that every vote is counted correctly, and defend against attempts to enfranchise ineligible voters and disenfranchise eligible voters. It would empower Congress to enact minimum electoral standards to guarantee a higher degree of legitimacy, inclusivity, and consistency across the nation, and give our courts the authority to keep politicians in check when they try to game the vote for partisan reasons.
Many Americans are hesitant to amend the U.S. Constitution, believing that it could lead to a slippery slope situation regarding other less desirable amendments. But the Constitution is not stagnant; it is a living document that, since its inception over 200 years ago, has been modified 27 times. Excluding the Bill of Rights, 7 of the last 17 constitutional amendments have dealt directly with expanding the franchise and improving the way citizens vote.
While the U.S. Constitution bans the restriction of voting based on race, sex and age, it does not explicitly and affirmatively state that all U.S. citizens have a right to vote. Even the Supreme Court ruled in the Bush v. Gore case in 2000 that citizens do not have the right to vote for electors for president; states control voting policies and procedures. As a result, we have a patchwork of voting systems run independently by 50 states, 3067 counties and over 13,000 voting districts, all separate and all unequal.
Approximately 5 million Americans convicted of felonies who have already completed their sentences are permanently disenfranchised. Fourteen states do not have an automatic restoration process in place for citizens once they have completed their felony sentence. Some states like Florida hold hearings chaired by the governor and the cabinet to determine if ex-felons are ready to vote. While this does re-enfranchise some, it is arbitrary and could easily be used for political gain.
However, it is not only ex-felons who face difficulty registering to vote. Americans living overseas have trouble registering in their home district, because their state may not consider them residents anymore. Many college students attempting to register at their college precinct have faced voter intimidation or were simply refused the ability to register to vote. Such reasons are not only arbitrary, but in many cases politically motivated.
The Right to Vote Amendment will guarantee all American citizens at least 18 years of age a constitutionally protected individual right to vote. Much like the rights to speech and religion, a constitutionally protected right to vote will be difficult to limit.
Voting should be a simple process in which any registered citizen can easily participate. However, this is not always the case. Voter identification and registration requirements, as well as the machines that voters use, vary widely between states. Nearly every state, as well as most counties, design their own ballots, pursue their own voter education, and have complete authority over their state voting policies and procedures. With over 10,000 different jurisdictions, voters and potential voters are much more likely to cast a counted vote in some states, some counties, and some areas of the country than others, simply based on the difference in standards for each election. Elections in many states are rife with lost and incorrectly counted votes, and many voters are incorrectly told that they cannot cast a ballot.
Since voting is regulated by the states, there is little the national government can do if voters are intimidated or harassed at the polling booth. With the Supreme Court's 2013 decision to strike down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and Congress's unwillingness to act to restore key components of the Act, a Right to Vote Amendment is needed to further enforce voting rights.
At present, Congress can take no action to formally help improve voting standards across the nation. While the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which passed in response to the voting fiasco of the 2000 presidential elections, does establish some standards including a provisional ballot, states are not required to follow these policies. The only way to ensure that every vote is counted and that electors follow the will of the people of their state is to create a constitutionally protected right to vote. The Right to Vote Amendment will give Congress the authority to protect the individual right to vote and oversee voting policies and procedures to ensure that elections are fair, accurate and efficient.