Securing the Right to Vote as a Citizenship Right

By Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
Published March 9th 2005 in
The right to vote is the fundamental citizenship right that protects all other rights. Maybe that explains the shape we're in.

The Bible says that if you build a house on sand, when it rains, the winds blow and the storms come it will not stand. The last two presidential elections have demonstrated that our voting system is built on sand.

Republicans and Democrats alike concede that votes have been lost or miscounted, machines have malfunctioned and voters who should be able to vote are turned away and those that shouldn't be allowed to vote have voted anyway. The question that has been on all our minds is what is wrong with our democracy? Why in state-after-state, year-after-year do we keep on having these problems? What do we need to do to reinforce our electoral house so it does not sink into oblivion?

The fundamental reason is this: the U.S. Constitution does not contain a right to vote and therefore Congress fails to establish enforceable uniform standards or a unitary voting system. While it is true that the Constitution does protect against voter discrimination based on race, sex or age and prohibits the use poll taxes or literacy tests, it does not explicitly guarantee that U.S. citizens have a right to vote.

You say "But Congressman, I have been able to register to vote and cast ballots my entire life, what do you mean I do not have a right to vote?" But the fact is that as an American you don't have a citizenship right to vote. Voting in the United States is a "state right", not a "citizenship right."

The First amendment contains individual citizenship rights that go with you from state to state (that is they are the same wherever you are in the U.S.) and they are protected and enforced by the federal government. As a result of the First Amendment, every American citizen has an individual right to free speech, freedom of assembly, and religious freedom (or to choose no religion at all), regardless of which state you're in.

Comparatively, a "state right" is not an American citizenship right, but a right defined and protected by each state -- and limited to that state. Therefore, when it comes to voting, each state, each county and elected jurisdiction is different.

In other words, our voting system, our house is built on the foundation of "states" rights -- 50 states, 3067 counties and more than 12,000 different election jurisdictions, all separate and all unequal. These election jurisdictions can each individually set voting policies and procedures such as ballot design, voter eligibility, which voting equipment is used, polling hours, how to count provisional ballots and what ID requirements are needed.

As a result, more than a million votes in the 2004 election were discarded. In one instance, 4,500 votes were lost forever when a touchscreen voting machine malfunctioned in North Carolina and had no back-up. In Florida and Pennsylvania, two of the most important battleground states in the presidential contest, more than half of the provisional ballots cast were not counted.

Election officials claim most of those were from unregistered voters. The question remains why weren't they registered? Did the local officials make mistakes when preparing voter rolls, a partisan organization simply not mail in their registration forms, or were these voters simply not registered?

Moreover, more than nine million U.S. citizens are permanently or temporarily denied the right to vote they would otherwise enjoy if they lived in a different state. Several states deny voting rights for life to anyone once convicted of a felony. Children of American families living abroad often cannot vote when they come of voting age. American citizens living in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands can be drafted into the military but are unable to vote for their commander-in-chief. Congress governs the District of Columbia more directly than any other state, yet more than a half-million citizens living in the District have no voting representation in Congress.

The United States stands virtually alone on denying constitutional protection of the right to vote. 108 of the 119 democratic nations in the world have a right to vote in their Constitution - including the Afghan Constitution and the interim Iraqi Constitution. The United States is one of only 11 that do not. At the same time we assist other nations implement democracy, we must also turn the mirror on ourselves and examine what we are doing, what rights we are protecting.

States should have control of many decisions and should be able to set certain laws and standards that are applicable to the responsibility each state has for its citizens. But voting, like freedom of speech, like freedom of religion and due process of law, operates outside of state authority.

Instead of a house on sand, we need to build our democracy and our voting system on a rock, the rock of adding a Voting Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that applies to all states and all citizens. That's why I and 56 colleagues in the House of Representatives have joined to support House Joint Resolution 28 -- which in the cause of electoral justice should be the 28th amendment to the Constitution.

Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) has served Illinois' 2nd congressional district since 1995. He is a board member of FairVote--The Center for Voting and Democracy. For further information, contact his Press Secretary/Director of Communications Frank E. Watkins at [email protected]
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