Ensuring Voting Rights

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.

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. 

Because celebration without substance is superstition, we must call on the government to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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!

Rev. Jesse L. Jack­son Sr. is the founder and pres­i­dent of the Chica­go-based Rainbow/​PUSH Coalition.
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