The Election Ran Smoothly, Didn't It?

By Jesse L. Jackson Jr.
Published December 13th 2004 in
It was a heated campaign and George W. Bush handily defeated John Kerry.  America demonstrated that its democracy is still the best in the world.  And it was a relief 2004 wasn't a repeat of 2000.  The 2004 election ran smoothly­didn't it?

Well not quite.  A preliminary review issued by a coalition of groups­including People for the American Way, the NAACP and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law­concluded, "the myth that the 2004 elections ran smoothly has become conventional wisdom for pundits and politicians, but nothing could be further from the truth."

Shattering the Myth: An Initial Snapshot of Voter Disenfranchisement in the 2004 Elections argues that "In addition to the long lines and unreasonable waiting times that kept many people­disproportionately urban minority votersvfrom being able to vote, the top five problems overall were registration processing, absentee ballots, machine errors, voter intimidation and suppression and problems with the use and counting of the new provisional ballots mandated under new federal law."

Many problems surfaced before Election Day.  Just as Katherine Harris­ Florida's Secretary of State and a co-chair of the Bush-Cheney Campaign in 2000 used various means of suppressing the minority vote­so did Ken Blackwell, Ohio's Secretary of State and co-chair of the Bush-Cheney Campaign.  Blackwell absurdly proposed accepting only completed voter registration forms printed on 80-pound card stock instead of regular printing paper.  Katherine Harris' replacement in Florida, Glenda Hood, attempted to implement another "felon purge" based on a faulty database until exposed by the press.  Voter suppression in minority communities was again evident:  flyers and phone calls advertising Election Day as November 3 instead of November 2; threats that if you illegally vote you could be imprisoned and your children taken away; and if you voted in other elections during 2004 you couldn't vote for President.

Why can we land people on the Moon, machines on Mars and transfer trillions internationally, but can't figure out how to run efficient, accurate and fair elections?  What's wrong?

Just below the dysfunctional U.S. election system there's a very basic democratic question being discussed or fiercely debated among academics, civil rights leaders and politicians from both political parties. The question?  Is the individual right to vote even guaranteed in our Constitution?

Bush v. Gore (2000) said, "the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States." Thus, the simple answer appears to be "no."

Others, Harvard Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe among them, argue that the "equal protection" and "non-discrimination in voting" clauses of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments respectively and Supreme Court precedents since Brown (1954) can be construed to grant the individual citizen the fundamental right to vote in the Constitution.

The current Constitution allows state legislatures­not individual voters­to select electors to elect the President through the Electoral College.  This is what Florida's legislature threatened to do in 2000 if Gore had won the most popular votes.  It would be especially wise for Democrats but, indeed, anyone who believes in democracy, to see the value of adding an individual voting rights amendment to the Constitution and no longer allow "states' rights" almost absolute control over our election process.

Last July­during a Q & A session at the RainbowPUSH Coalition Convention in Chicago­former President Bill Clinton, after careful questioning, acknowledged, constitutionally, we have a voting system largely based on "states' rights" and he supported adding an individual voting rights amendment to the Constitution.

On August 6, at the UNITY: Journalists of Color Convention, Roland Martin asked President George W. Bush: "In your remarks you said that 8 million people in Afghanistan registered to vote, and as you said, exercised their God-given right to vote...That may be a right from God, but it's not guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution...And in this age of new constitutional amendments, will you endorse a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American the right to vote in federal elections?"  President Bush responded:  "I'll consider it."

I'm convinced that if Congress had the will, under our current Constitution, it could do much more to strengthen the administration of a unitary voting system, and protect and fully count all votes. Most Americans are unaware, however, that, nationally, according to a joint study by Cal-Tech and MIT, somewhere between four and six million votes were not counted in 2000 because many states had similar problems to what occurred in Florida.  My state of Illinois was the worst.  Ohio is the Florida of 2004 but nationwide massive voting problems were again very evident.

But I'm unconvinced, absent a voting rights amendment, that any solutions to our most pressing voting rights problems will be universal or sustainable.  How can we achieve equal protection in 13,000 separate and unequally administered voting jurisdictions?  We can't!

For example, I was born in South Carolina, raised in Illinois and went to college in North Carolina.  While a resident in each of those states, the simple fact that I'm an American entitled me to representation by two Senators and a Representative. However, while working in Congress I live in DC where American citizens­with the same obligation to pay taxes and willingness to fight and die in defense of our nation­experience taxation without voting representation in Congress. They are equal American citizens in obligation but treated unequally politically. They've tried political enfranchisement through a constitutional amendment, an "equal protection" and "non-discrimination in voting" lawsuit, and statehood through the Congress, only to be rejected.  An individual voting rights amendment would give them equal citizenship status and entitle them to equal representation in Congress.

Most Americans are aware that in 2000 Florida removed over 50,000 voters claiming, erroneously, they were ex-felons.  Nationally, nearly five million ex-felons, who have fully paid their debt to society, are permanently barred from voting.  As a legacy of slavery, such laws are disproportionately in the South where 53 percent of African Americans live.  Only a voting rights amendment can overcome many states determination to exclude them.

Without an individual voting rights amendment, any law Congress passed would only apply to federal elections, not state and local elections.

And if the individual right to vote is already in the Constitution, why didn't it take precedent over Florida's arbitrary December 12 deadline to count all the votes?  In my view, constitutionally, states' rights overruled the individual's right to have their vote counted.

Finally, wouldn't individual voting rights be stronger and better protected if we had an explicit right to vote included in the U.S. Constitution
Advisory Committee

In 2008, FairVote established a new Advisory Board comprised initially of recent members of its Board of Directors. These leaders receive updates from FairVote about our progress and regularly provide comments and advice:

  • Nikolas Bowie, Yale undergraduate student
  • Erin Bowser, executive director of Environment Ohio 
  • Antonio Gonzalez, President of Southwest Voter Registration Ed. Project
  • Jesse Jackson Jr., Member of Congress
  • Laura Liswood, CEO of Council on Women's World Leaders
  • Nina Moseley, former executive director of Democracy South
  • Clay Mulford, chief operating officer of National Math and Science Initiative
  • Rashad Robinson, Director of media programs, GLAAD
  • Katherine Spillar, executive editor of Ms. Magazine