Kerry Needs Civil Rights Agenda

By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.
Published March 23rd 2004 in Chicago Sun-Times
George W. Bush didn't wait a day to go negative in the presidential campaign. If he has his way, the campaign will wallow in gutter politics -- distortions, lies and personal attacks, all designed to drag the Democratic nominee into the muck.

As the president demonstrated in his empty State of the Union address, he has no positive agenda for his second term -- offering only more debt at home and war abroad. So it's no surprise that he thinks an ugly, negative campaign is his best chance for re-election.

When you're hit below the belt, the natural instinct is to strike back. But before John Kerry descends into the mud fight the president wants, he should offer Americans a real agenda on jobs, real security, and a commitment to stand with working and poor people against the special interests that now run wild in Washington. Part of that should be a new civil rights agenda -- starting with guaranteeing the right to vote.

Americans are shocked to learn that we have no constitutional right to vote for our president. But it's true. Our Constitution prohibits discrimination, but gives no citizen the federal right to vote in presidential elections or to control the selection of presidential electors. Instead, it delegates voting rights to the states. State legislatures can appoint the electors who vote for president in the Electoral College any way they want. Of course, states generally mandate that their Electoral College delegations be chosen on the basis of the popular vote, but they need not do so.

This all seemed pretty esoteric until the Florida mess in the 2000 election. There, the Republican-controlled Legislature, acting at the behest of Gov. Jeb Bush, announced that it would select the state's Electoral College members if the outcome of the popular vote was still unsettled on Dec. 12. Then, in the infamous Supreme Court decision on Bush vs. Gore that ordered that the popular vote not be counted, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Scalia declared that since the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the president, Florida's legislature could do whatever it wanted.


The Republican majority in the Texas Legislature recently amended its constitution to provide that if the popular vote is difficult to count, it will appoint electors of its own choosing. With Bush declining in popularity, Republicans seem unwilling to rely on the fickle voter.


Beyond these partisan threats, a constitutional amendment is vitally needed. Poor technology, registration obstacles and tactical suppression of voting at the state level deprived 4 million to 6 million Americans of their vote 2000, according to a study of the Cal Tech and MIT Voting Technology Project.

An additional 8 million Americans are disenfranchised by law -- a situation that will not change without an amendment to the Constitution. This includes more than 570,000 draftable citizens in the District of Columbia who lack any voting representation in Congress, although they pay more in federal taxes per capita than the residents of every state but Connecticut.

In addition, 1.4 million ex-offenders have paid their debt to society but are permanently disenfranchised in 13 states, mostly in the Deep South. This mass electoral suppression discriminates against blacks and Latinos. In
Florida, a stunning 31 percent of all African-American men are permanently disenfranchised; in Texas, more than 20 percent.

This astounding discrimination fuels annual attacks on the United States in hearings at the U.N. and in international human rights bodies, where the United States is exposed as preaching democracy while practicing 19th century colonialism at home.

Kerry has no choice but to respond to the president's gutter politics, but he must also show that he has the vision to make America better. A centerpiece of that effort should be a new civil rights agenda, featuring a constitutional amendment on the right to vote, the right to a quality public education, the right to affordable health care.

Offering Americans hope will be a sharp contrast to the mean and negative campaign that Bush seems intent on running.