by Janai S. Nelson, law professor, associate dean for faculty scholarship, and associate director of the The Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development, St. John's University School of Law. She is also author of the article, “The First Amendment, Equal Protection and Felon Disenfranchisement: A New Viewpoint.” This post is part of our 2013 Constitution Day symposium.
“Constitution and Citizenship Day,” as it is formerly called, was once known only as Citizenship Day in commemoration of the countless immigrants who have chosen to uphold the U.S. constitution and claim the nationality of this country. One of the most important badges of citizenship, however, is not enshrined in the constitution -- the right to vote.
African Americans, women, and persons as young as 18 years of age were all granted voting rights through constitutional amendments. Those amendments established the conditions upon which the right to vote could not be denied but did not grant a universal, affirmation, and equal right to vote for all citizens. Indeed, the need for serial amendments to create the diverse electorate we see today is evidence of this constitutional void.
The current assault on voter participation is also proof of this void. If there were an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution, it would be harder for Republican-led state legislatures to enact voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise the poor, minorities, students, and the elderly, more difficult for states like Florida to carelessly purge eligible voters from registration rolls, and a greater obstacle for election officials to limit participation by curtailing early voting and over-regulating registration procedures.
Why then should the right to vote remain absent from one of the most revered constitutions in the world? It doesn’t have to. Earlier this year, Congressmen Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced a bill to amend the Constitution to include an affirmative right to vote. This idea has long been supported by organizations like Fair Vote which backs the current bill through its Promote the Vote campaign -- and its time has come.
As I’ve written for Reuters here, “at no time in recent history has the need for a right-to-vote amendment been more pronounced. The [Supreme] court’s ruling earlier this year in Shelby County v. Holder, disabling a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, calls for dramatic congressional action to both rehabilitate that landmark act and recommit to our constitutional ideals.” We would be remiss if we did not use this moment to reflect on the greatness of our Constitution and also flag its weaknesses. Indeed, there is no better time to kick-start a national discussion on the proposed right-to-vote amendment than during this celebration of both our Constitution and our citizenship, as neither is truly complete without an explicit right to vote.