Needed Now: A Constitutional Amendment Ensuring the Right to Vote

News & Politics

Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that there is no provision of the Constitution or federal law that affirmatively guarantees all citizens the right to vote. Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the 1965 Voting Rights Act nor any other federal law explicitly ensures such a right. Even the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution do not explicitly guarantee the right to vote to all citizens.

Now is an ideal time to ensure the right to vote for people of color, who are disproportionately disenfranchised, and all Americans. In this heated election season, state legislatures throughout the nation are considering bills that would complicate the process by requiring photo identification and citizenship documents in order to vote.

Over the past two years, Advancement Project has been working to devise a way to guarantee voting rights in federal law to end practices that unnecessarily disenfranchise voters. We have identified the strategies that would be most effective in raising public awareness about limitations on the right to vote and the need for major reform.

The absence of an explicit federal provision conferring this fundamental right has left Americans at the mercy of state constitutions, state legislatures, local bureaucrats, and the judiciary. The states determine who is qualified to vote and establish the rules and conditions for holding elections. Not surprisingly, the combination of unduly burdensome procedures, underfunded bureaucracies and partisan officials has created a patchwork of arbitrary practices tending to contract, rather than expand the franchise. The result, as documented by scholars, is that more than nine million Americans are known to be disenfranchised by idiosyncratic legal restrictions on who is qualified to vote. Millions more are excluded by unnecessary hurdles to registration and voting and by election administration errors.

According to one academic researcher, the U.S. is one of only 11 democratic countries that do not explicitly provide the right to vote in their constitutions. According to Professor Jamin Raskin, one of the leading academic authorities on voting rights, constitutional silence on a basic right to vote leaves the United States in miserable, backward company with such regressive nations as Iran, Libya, and Singapore ... "

Advancement Project analyzed the possibility of amending the Constitution to guarantee explicitly that all citizens have a fair, equal, and inclusive voice in our democracy. We also looked at the option of seeking a federal statute to enshrine the right to vote in federal law.

Enshrining an affirmative right to vote explicitly in the Constitution or federal law would ensure a uniform set of voting laws throughout the nation, rather than an assortment of inconsistent voting guidelines. A constitutional amendment provides more certain and solid protection of the right to vote, when compared to a federal statute. However, amending the Constitution is a difficult, arduous, and lengthy process. It may be useful to work towards passing both a federal statute and a constitutional amendment.

An explicit right to vote guaranteed by a constitutional amendment could be compared to the First Amendment right guaranteeing free speech because free speech rights are the same regardless of the voter's state of residence. If incorporated into the Constitution, the right to vote -- like the right to speak one's mind -- will become a right that travels with the citizen.

Enshrining an affirmative right to vote is more than a single, isolated initiative. It requires a broad, national movement. It is a long-term undertaking.

PDF link to the report:

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