Time to put voting in the Constitution

Published 8:11 pm Sunday, August 31, 2008

By Staff
Rarely, if ever, has an election captured global attention like this one. The race for the White House is a topic of conversation at dinner tables, in marketplaces and halls of worship and on news broadcasts around the world. Democracy is on full display, and the message is hopeful, forward-looking and bright.
Here at home, the historic nature of this election is inspiring a kind of democratic renaissance. Registration and turnout are expected to reach historic highs.
But behind this encouraging — and even inspiring — display, there is a more troubling reality. Instead of one democracy, we have closer to 13,000 separate sets of rules and regulations across the country about who can vote and how they do so. The voting process is different state to state and county to county.
This year, millions of Americans will once again go to the polls believing that their legal right to vote is protected, but what you may find surprising is that it’s not.
One of the most significant things we learned about our democracy in the Bush versus Gore contest of 2000 was the Supreme Court’s insistence that Americans have “no federal constitutional right to vote.” In other words, the court said that we (the people) have only the voting privileges our states choose to grant us.
Yes, our Constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination in granting the franchise based on a person’s race, sex, or (adult) age in the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments, but those protections are incomplete. States and other governments can and do disenfranchise individuals and groups of citizens, legally, as long they do it without provable bias.
The problem with our democracy, however, is not sensational. It is fundamental. Photo-identification requirements in Indiana kept 12 nuns in their 80s and 90s without driver’s licenses from voting in the primary there this May.
In New York City, in 2004, Asian-American voters were routinely asked for identification when trying to vote — even though city laws didn’t require voters to have an ID.
In Florida, in 2004, election officials rejected thousands of voter-registration applications because potential voters failed to check a box on the application that duplicated information that had already been asked.
We document instances like these in our new report: “In Pursuit of an Affirmative Right to Vote.” The patchwork of registration and voting requirements and practices undermines the very vitality and security of our democracy. Advancement Project has fought to address these disparities for years in the courtroom and at the state house. But the fight is exhausting: a new challenge seems to emerge after every victory is celebrated.
It is time to engage in serious constitutional politics on behalf of the right to vote. This is the only way to redeem the chaos of the 2000 presidential election and to begin to ensure that such an assault on democracy will never be repeated.
The vote is the bedrock of our democracy. No wonder the struggle to attain it has caused men and women to risk their lives — here and around the world. In 2008, an energized electorate is once again expected to turn out in large numbers in November. But we must be clear about the implications of living in a nation where federal law doesn’t guarantee the right to vote to anyone — millions of eligible voters who cast votes may not get their vote counted because of the unnecessary rules in states throughout the country that impede the voting process.
It is time to rectify this patchwork of bizarre and erratic state customs. We need to put the right to vote in the Constitution. This would establish full voting rights so all Americans can help decide all laws that govern them. The right to vote must become a right guaranteed to all American citizens and not a privilege controlled by a few. It is time for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution.