The seventeen amendments that follow the Bill of Rights cover a seemingly wide range of issues, but one theme is prevalent in several of them: the expansion of voting rights. A total of seven amendments deal with widening the franchise to give more Americans a direct and immediate stake in the choice of their government, a practice that, despite well-documented problems in the recent past, is still the envy of much of the world.
Not since the institution of Jim Crow laws in the South has there been any concerted attempt to limit the franchise or restrict its growth to new populations. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the 26th Amendment giving all citizens 18-to-20 year olds the right to vote in 1971, many have been lulled into a sense of complacency that the right to vote is now available. With limited residency restrictions, all American citizens may vote in elections, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age or residency.
But elections themselves have consequences. Although they campaigned on reviving the stagnant economies of their states and rejected so-called “Obamacare” the Republican Governors and state legislators elected in 2010 spent much of their first year in office passing new laws putting limits on voting rights. The most common restriction has been a requirement that voters show a state-issued photo i.d. before voting at the polls—even though most states require pre-registration of voters just to show up at the polling place.
While advocates have called the requirement a common sense restriction that will be easy for voters to comply with, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 12% of Americans do not have a government-issued ID, with the figure being double for African-Americans and perhaps even higher among African-Americans in the South. All told, estimates are that 5,000,000 voters could be excluded from voting this year who would have been eligible under rules in place in 2008. Fans of coincidence will note that it just so happens that minorities and the young are among the groups most likely to vote for Democrats.
The laws have had an almost immediate impact in terms of restricting voting. In one instance, Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year old African-American woman from Nashville, was denied a state issued ID because she could not produce her marriage certificate (her birth certificate, of course, was issued in her maiden name). Mrs. Cooper had been able to vote throughout the worst restrictions passed under Jim Crow, yet the new restrictions were sufficiently broad to exclude her from voting in 2011.
Those who favor a universal franchise for U.S. citizens must acknowledge nothing stands in the way of the current restrictions being found constitutional. The current Supreme Court majority appears intent on expanding upon new and old notions of states’ rights. A solution would be the introduction and passage of a Voting Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would supplant and expand existing legislation. Such an amendment would guarantee the right to vote for all American citizens regardless of race, age, gender, income level, or voting locale.
As Congressman, I will work with voting rights experts to develop language for such an amendment, and introduce it during the 113th Congress. Voting rights are so fundamental as to necessitate the inclusion of a guarantee of their exercise in the Constitution. Our best efforts as a nation are made when we increase franchise beyond those with means and influence.
Ray Lodato is a Democratic candidate for Congress in the Illinois 1st District. A founder of a community organization that focuses on job training and green development in low-income neighborhoods, he has also served as Chair of the Local School Council and as a staffer for the campaigns of numerous progressive politicians, including Barack Obama and Toni Preckwinkle. He currently works at a research firm and as a lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Chicago. His campaign can be found at http://www.lodato4congress.com/ and on Facebook. Students at UChicago and other area schools interested in his campaign can get involved at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Students-for-Ray-Lodato/304782346224378 .