Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivered a stirring call for the renewal of American democracy during a CNN town hall meeting last week, calling for changing the U.S. Constitution to include a voting rights amendment along the lines long championed by Congressman Mark Pocan.
“I believe we need a constitutional amendment that protects the right to vote for every American citizen and to make sure that vote gets counted,” Warren declared as she took her Democratic presidential run to Mississippi. “We need to put some federal muscle behind that and we need to repeal every one of the voter suppression laws that is out there right now.”
Warren’s announcement drew loud applause, and rightly so.
It is not enough to answer threats to voting rights by trying to keep up with every assault on voting rights: from restrictive voter ID laws to attacks on same-day registration and schemes to limit or eliminate early voting. There needs to be a comprehensive fix.
This is why Pocan, D-town of Vermont, and former Congressman Keith Ellison decided to go to the heart of the matter. In 2013, the Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders proposed a simple amendment to the Constitution of the United States to include a clearly defined right to vote that read:
SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
There is nothing radical about that language. It outlines a basic premise of the American experiment, and a concept that the United States has proudly exported. Indeed, when the U.S. has had a hand in shaping the destinies of other lands, as well as international agreements, the primacy of the right to vote has been well understood and explicitly stated.
The constitution of Iraq guarantees: "Iraqi citizens, men and women, shall have the right to participate in public affairs and to enjoy political rights including the right to vote, elect, and run for office."
In Afghanistan, the constitution provides every citizen with “the right to elect and be elected."
The German constitution crafted in the aftermath of World War II declared that every adult “shall be entitled to vote."
In Japan, the constitution announced: “Universal adult suffrage is guaranteed.”
And, of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt did so much to establish, announces: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Most Americans are unaware that they do not have a defined — let alone guaranteed — right to vote.
But this is the case. And this is a serious issue.
“Because there is no right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, individual states set their own electoral policies and procedures,” explained FairVote, the national group that seeks to ensure that American elections are free, fair and representative. “This leads to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies regarding ballot design, polling hours, voting equipment, voter registration requirements, and ex-felon voting rights. As a result, our electoral system is divided into 50 states, more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, all separate and unequal.”
That has never been acceptable to Pocan, who now serves as the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. With Ellison, who now serves as Minnesota’s attorney general, he has kept introducing the right-to-vote amendment.
Pocan’s campaign had drawn support from veterans of the civil rights movement, such as Congressman John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who said, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool for change that we have in a democratic society, We need to make it simple and easy for every American citizen, who is of voting age, to weigh in on the matters that govern their lives. This bill guarantees that eligible citizens cannot be so easily disenfranchised, and the right of each have a say in the democratic process is protected.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “As our civil and human rights democratic movement continues to struggle for full equality for all Americans, it’s not obvious that there was a ‘before Selma’ dimension to our struggle for voting rights, but that there must also be a ‘beyond Selma’ dimension.”
Now, with Elizabeth Warren’s announcement, a presidential contender has taken up the call, amid growing recognition that Pocan is right to speak of the amendment as an urgent and necessary intervention on behalf of the American experiment.
“A core principle of our democracy is the ability for citizens to participate in the election of their representatives,” explained the Wisconsin Democrat. “We have seen constant attempts by some states to erode voting rights and make it harder for citizens to vote. This amendment would affirm the principle of equal participation in our democracy for every citizen. As the world’s leading democracy, we must guarantee the right to vote for all.”
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising.
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