They are not satisfied to tinker around the edges of the issue, fighting rearguard actions to block restrictive voter ID laws, assaults on same-day registration, and schemes to limit or eliminate early voting. Make no mistake: Pocan and Ellison are willing to go to battle on behalf of free, open and high-turnout elections. The Democratic representatives from Wisconsin and Minnesota have already done so (as state legislators and as members of Congress) and they will continue to do so. They will, as well, continue to demand congressional action to renew the sections of the Voting Rights Act that were undermined by a Supreme Court majority that has moved to make it easier for corporations to buy elections and harder for citizens to vote in them.
But Pocan and Ellison recognize that just pushing back against legislative partisans and activist judges is not enough. They want to go to the heart of the matter.
So the Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders are reintroducing their proposal to amend the Constitution of the United States to include a clearly defined right to vote.
Most Americans are unaware that they do not have a defined — let alone guaranteed — right to vote.
But this is the case. And this is a serious issue.
“Because there is no right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, individual states set their own electoral policies and procedures,” explains FairVote, the national group that seeks to ensure that American elections are free, fair and representative. “This leads to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies regarding ballot design, polling hours, voting equipment, voter registration requirements, and ex-felon voting rights. As a result, our electoral system is divided into 50 states, more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, all separate and unequal.”
Pocan and Ellison want to do something about all of these threats because, as Pocan says, “The right to vote is too important to be left unprotected.”
With support from almost two dozen House members, and endorsements from voting rights and civil rights activists, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the congressmen propose to amend the founding document with an affirmative declaration that reads:
SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
Ellison, a lawyer and veteran voting rights campaigner, argues that without a clear guarantee, politicians will continue to propose and enact legislation that impedes voting rights. Noting that fights over voting rights have become a constant challenge — not to mention a constant frustration, the Minneapolis Democrat says: “Even though the right to vote is the most-mentioned right in the Constitution, legislatures across the country have been trying to deny that right to millions of Americans, including in my home state of Minnesota. It’s time we made it clear once and for all: Every citizen in the United States has a fundamental right to vote.”
Minnesota voters rejected an assault on voting rights in that state in 2012. But, the Brennan Center for Justice reports, at least 83 restrictive bills were introduced in 29 states where legislatures had floor activity in 2014. In Wisconsin, for instance, the Republican-controlled Legislature has already backed a harsh voter ID law and limited early voting. And now Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative cronies — led by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — are proposing to undermine the ability of the state’s election agency (the Government Accountability Board) to run free and fair elections.
“At a time when there are far too many efforts to disenfranchise Americans, a voting rights amendment would positively affirm our founding principle that our country is at its strongest when everyone participates," said Pocan. "As the world’s leading democracy, we must demand of ourselves what we demand of others — a guaranteed right to vote for all.”
There is nothing radical about that language. It outlines a basic premise of the American experiment, and a concept that the United States has proudly exported. Indeed, when the U.S. has had a hand in shaping the destinies of other lands, as well as international agreements, the primacy of the right to vote has been well understood and explicitly stated.
The constitution of Iraq guarantees: "Iraqi citizens, men and women, shall have the right to participate in public affairs and to enjoy political rights including the right to vote, elect, and run for office."
In Afghanistan, the constitution provides every citizen with “the right to elect and be elected."
The German constitution crafted in the aftermath of World War II declared that every adult “shall be entitled to vote."
In Japan, the constitution announced: “Universal adult suffrage is guaranteed.”
And, of course, when former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the commission that outlined a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document declared: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
"The right to vote is the foundation of any democracy,” says FairVote Executive Director Rob Richie. “Adding an affirmative right to vote to the U.S. Constitution is the best way to guarantee that the government, whether at the federal, state, or local level, cannot infringe upon our individual right to vote. Building support for this amendment offers an opportunity to inspire a 21st century suffrage movement where Americans come together to protect voting rights, promote voter participation and debate suffrage expansion."