The right to vote is the fundamental citizenship right that protects all
other rights. Maybe that explains the shape we're in.
The Bible says that if you build a house on sand, when it rains, the
winds blow and the storms come it will not stand. The last two
presidential elections have demonstrated that our voting system is built
Republicans and Democrats alike concede that votes have been lost or
miscounted, machines have malfunctioned and voters who should be able to
vote are turned away and those that shouldn't be allowed to vote have
voted anyway. The question that has been on all our minds is what is
wrong with our democracy? Why in state-after-state, year-after-year do
we keep on having these problems? What do we need to do to reinforce our
electoral house so it does not sink into oblivion?
The fundamental reason is this: the U.S. Constitution does not contain a
right to vote and therefore Congress fails to establish enforceable
uniform standards or a unitary voting system. While it is true that the
Constitution does protect against voter discrimination based on race,
sex or age and prohibits the use poll taxes or literacy tests, it does
guarantee that U.S. citizens have a right to vote.
You say "But Congressman, I have been able to register to vote and cast
ballots my entire life, what do you mean I do not have a right to vote?"
But the fact is that as an American you don't have a citizenship right
to vote. Voting in the United States is a "state right", not a
The First amendment contains individual citizenship rights that go with
you from state to state (that is they are the same wherever you are in
the U.S.) and they are protected and enforced by the federal government.
As a result of the First Amendment, every American citizen has an
individual right to free speech, freedom of assembly, and religious
freedom (or to choose no religion at all), regardless of which state you're in.
Comparatively, a "state right" is not an American citizenship right, but
a right defined and protected by each state -- and limited to that
state. Therefore, when it comes to voting, each state, each county and
elected jurisdiction is different.
In other words, our voting system, our house is built on the foundation
of "states" rights -- 50 states, 3067 counties and more than 12,000
different election jurisdictions, all separate and all unequal. These
election jurisdictions can each individually set voting policies and
procedures such as ballot design, voter eligibility, which voting
equipment is used, polling hours, how to count provisional ballots and
what ID requirements
As a result, more than a million votes in the 2004 election were
discarded. In one instance, 4,500 votes were lost forever when a
touchscreen voting machine malfunctioned in North Carolina and had no
back-up. In Florida and Pennsylvania, two of the most important
battleground states in the presidential contest, more than half of the
provisional ballots cast were not counted.
Election officials claim most of those were from unregistered voters.
The question remains why weren't they registered? Did the local
officials make mistakes when preparing voter rolls, a partisan
organization simply not mail in their registration forms, or were these
voters simply not registered?
Moreover, more than nine million U.S. citizens are permanently or
temporarily denied the right to vote they would otherwise enjoy if they
lived in a different state. Several states deny voting rights for life
to anyone once convicted of a felony. Children of American families
living abroad often cannot vote when they come of voting age. American
citizens living in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands can be
drafted into the military but are unable to vote for their
commander-in-chief. Congress governs the District of Columbia more
directly than any other state, yet more than a half-million citizens
living in the District have no voting representation in Congress.
The United States stands virtually alone on denying constitutional
protection of the right to vote. 108 of the 119 democratic nations in the world have a right to vote in their Constitution - including the Afghan
Constitution and the interim Iraqi Constitution. The United States is
one of only 11 that do not. At the same time we assist other nations
implement democracy, we must also turn the mirror on ourselves and examine what we are doing, what rights we are protecting.
States should have control of many decisions and should be able to set
certain laws and standards that are applicable to the responsibility each state has for its citizens. But voting, like freedom of speech, like
freedom of religion and due process of law, operates outside of state authority.
Instead of a house on sand, we need to build our democracy and our
voting system on a rock, the rock of adding a Voting Rights Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution that applies to all states and all citizens.
That's why I and 56 colleagues in the House of Representatives have
joined to support House Joint Resolution 28 -- which in the cause of
electoral justice should be the 28th
amendment to the Constitution.
Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) has served Illinois' 2nd
congressional district since 1995. He is a board member of FairVote--The
Voting and Democracy. For further information, contact his Press Secretary/Director of Communications Frank E. Watkins at firstname.lastname@example.org