Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, one of the true landmarks in our history. The right to vote and, and our First Amendment rights are the pillar of ensuring government operates with the consent of the government.
However, we must face a bracing reality: the Constitution does not establish an affirmative right to vote. In its 2000 decision in Bush V. Gore, the Supreme Court asserted that “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.”
Not having a clear, affirmative right to vote may be shocking to some, given amendments to the Constitution providing suffrage rights to women, African Americans and young adults and statues like the Voting Rights Act. Those laws provide for equality in voting; they do not guarantee quality. That’s why it took a constitutional amendment in 1964 to ban poll taxes and why the citizens of the District of Columbia can be denied a right to vote in Congress today. That’s why some 13,000 jurisdictions make independent decisions about matters like ballot design, polling places, voting equipment and poll workers that affect elections for our highest offices – with little accountability for those decisions.
Many election officials do heroic work, but their decisions are governed by too few standards, they often lack sufficient funding and their performance can lack transparency and accountability. Those deficiencies can translate into long lines, untested ballot designs, buggy voting software, error-ridden voter rolls and lackluster poll workers. Partisans all too often can influence who votes and how easy it is to vote.
Such problems combine to cause significant damage to suffrage rights. Further protection must be anchored in the Constitution. Voting should be a fundamental citizenship right. To establish such an affirmative right, we need a constitutional amendment, currently proposed by Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. in the form of HJR 28. FairVote strongly supports this proposal.
But an amendment takes time. Keeping it as our clear goal, local officials can take immediate steps. For example, Chicago last year debated legislation calling on Congress to approve the Right to Vote amendment and pledging to review its laws and procedures to uphold the right to vote in its own elections.
Even as our country fights to expand democracy around the world and even as we rightly celebrate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, let’s act to protect our own right to vote. I urge jurisdictions to start by promoting the right to vote in their own local jurisdictions. Ask your city council to protect your right to vote and to join a grassroots effort to protect a “right” that should have no asterisk: let’s work to put a right to vote the Constitution and have that ideal govern our elections wherever they take place.