If you thought that the U. S. Constitution guaranteed your right to vote, think again.
“While the right to vote is inherent throughout our founding document, and there are amendments prohibiting discrimination, nothing in the Constitution explicitly guarantees our right to vote. We, as Americans, possess no affirmative right to vote,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) as he introduced legislation on voting rights with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in May 2013.
The Pocan-Ellison Right to Vote Amendment would provide all eligible citizens an affirmative right to vote and make it harder for state and local legislators to pass restrictive laws that have disenfranchised Blacks and poor voters in the past.
The bill gained little traction in Congress last year, but the right to vote amendment, restrictive voting laws and election reform were all on the menu during the recent Eighth Annual Voting and Elections Summit, presented by the Overseas Vote Foundation and U.S. Vote Foundation.
The summit featured election experts and voters’ rights advocates who addressed issues related to grassroots innovations in voting, midterm mobilization and new voting technology. Speakers also discussed the most recent developments, including last summer’s historic Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision that held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional.
SCOTUS demanded that the Congress update the preclearance formula in Section 4 that required states with a history of voting practices that discriminated against Blacks to clear any changes in voting laws in advance with the Justice Department. The court insisted on a more updated formula.
Before the 1965 VRA became law, Black voters, especially in the South, were often subjected to poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and sometimes death in their effort to vote. After the law was passed, the Justice Department often turned to Section 4 and Section 5 of the VRA to prevent discriminatory voting practices.
“Section 5 was amazingly effective at blocking the use of new discriminatory practices in the covered jurisdictions,” said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
In the wake of the Shelby decision, state legislators rushed to pass new restrictive laws that were once automatically blocked by the Justice Department.
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a private, nonpartisan, conservative-leaning think tank dedicated to research and education on public policy issues, economics and social welfare, said that Chief Justice John Roberts used “powerfully faulty logic” in his decision in the Shelby case.
“Imagine there is an intersection which has a long history of people speeding going through the town [causing] traffic accidents…So, they put in speed bumps, traffic lights, speed cameras, stiff fines and remarkably over a period of time, no problems, no deaths,” said Ornstein. “Then you get authorities saying, ‘We solved that problem now let’s take out the speed bumps, take out the cameras, never mind the fines.’ And my goodness, before long, mayhem occurs.’”
Now, because of the Supreme Court decision, the Justice Department is forced to play whack-a-mole filing lawsuits against the most onerous, most visible voting laws.
“The real problem is you have a lot of these local jurisdictions, nobody is going to have the resources to bring the lawsuits,” said Ornstein. “There will be stuff below the surface that we will not see that will have a real impact.”
In an effort to reverse the damage of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, House lawmakers crafted the Voting Rights Act of 2014. The bill requires states to publicize any last minute changes to voting laws. If a state committed five or more violations in the last 15 years, they would automatically fall under the supervision of the Justice Department.
Cities and counties face a lower threshold under the new bill; if they commit three violations in 15 years, the Justice Department can step in and require preclearance for any changes in voting laws and could effectively block laws before they disenfranchise voters. Under VRA 2014, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi would require preclearance for any changes.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) during his keynote address at the summit. “The bipartisan cooperation that has allowed us to get this far will ultimately carry the day and allow us to meet these challenges made by the Supreme Court and continue strong enforcement around our most fundamental right, a sacred right—the right to vote.”
As many voters’ rights advocates applauded the bipartisan effort, they also noted the shortcomings, especially the soft touch given to restrictive voter ID laws.
“Although the Lawyer’s Committee doesn’t agree with every single provision of the act, this is a true demonstration, a meaningful action on this critically important issue for our country,” said Barbara Arnwine, the president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Ornstein was less optimistic.
“Despite the fact that this is sponsored in a bipartisan way, there is no appetite in the leadership of the House of Representatives to move a voting rights act. We have to start thinking about other alternatives,” he said.