By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.
Published March 24th 2005 in In These Times
As our nation has witnessed in the democracy debacle of the last two American presidential elections—in which the loser won and the winner lost—the right to vote preserves all other rights.
Officials elected by the citizens or ones appointed by elected officials set public policy in all spheres of American life. Accordingly, how election rules are set, who is permitted to cast votes, and by what means votes are counted determine public policy—domestically and internationally.
On March 6, Americans observed the 40-year anniversary of the historic “Bloody Sunday” march, which resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act implemented non-discriminatory voting rights provisions for people of color, particularly in Southern states where race-conscious election practices were rampant. Because celebration without substance is superstition, we must call on the government to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act and fill the gaping hole in our democracy by enacting a constitutional amendment for the individual and federally protected right to vote for all citizens.
Rainbow/PUSH Coalition is working with a coalition of civil, labor and women’s rights organizations, along with church denominations, to launch a national campaign to secure 1 million signatures in support of this reauthorization, including enforcement provisions such as Section 203 (which provides language and other assistance) and Section 5 (pre-clearance of state voting plans by the U.S. Department of Justice). The deadline for collecting signatures will be August 6, 2005, the 40th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, after which this petition would be delivered to the White House and Congress.
In conjunction, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and a host of voting rights organizations are leading the Amendment Project, which aims to secure a constitutional amendment that protects all Americans’ individual right to vote. Most Americans believe that the “legal right to vote” in our democracy is explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution and national law. However, the Constitution only explicitly provides for non-discrimination in voting on the basis of race, sex and age in the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments, respectively.
Even though the “vote of the people” is perceived as supreme in our democracy (after all, voting rights protect all other rights), as Justice Scalia in Bush v. Gore constantly reminded Al Gore’s lawyers, the Constitution contains no explicit or fundamental right to suffrage. The Supreme Court majority concluded: “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.”
Voting in the United States is instead based on the constitutional principle of “states’ rights.” The 10th Amendment to the Constitution states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Since the word “vote” appears in the Constitution only with respect to non-discrimination, the so-called “right to vote” is a “state right.”
Under our current states’ rights voting system, there are approximately 13,000 separately administered voting jurisdictions in the United States, which are structured to be separate and unequal. According to a study by the Caltech and MIT Voting Rights Project, somewhere between 4 and 6 million votes were not counted in 2000 because many states had voting rights irregularities similar to what occurred in Florida.
Without the constitutional right to vote, Congress is only able to pass legislation regulating voting. While Rep. Jackson’s proposal supports progressive electoral reform legislation, it leaves the “states’ rights” system in place. Currently, Congress mostly uses financial and other incentives to entice the states to cooperate and comply with the law. That’s one reason there have been so many problems with the recently passed Help America Vote Act and why many states still have not fully complied with the law.
To fulfill the democratic ideal, we need a constitutional amendment that affirms voting rights. According to Alexander Keyssar, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, 108 of the 119 nations in the world that elect their representatives to all levels of government in some democratic fashion explicitly guarantee their citizens the right to vote in their constitutions. Both Afghanistan’s constitution and Iraq’s interim legal document contain an explicit right to vote.
The United States is one of the 11 democratic nations in the world whose constitution provides no such thing. Such a gaping hole in American democracy affects other critical issues, such as public education, the right of American workers to organize, a living wage and universal healthcare for all Americans, regardless of resources.
Only through a coalition of conscience, which includes a progressive media unfettered by corporate coffers, can the critical issues of our time come to resolution for the benefit of “We, the People.”
Keep Hope Alive!