Freedom of speech and the rule of law are enshrined in the American Constitution but a specific “right to vote” was not directly mentioned by our forefathers. An article at Vox sought to bring out the reasons behind this omission accompanied by an interview conducted by Sean Illing with well-known American political historian Allan Lichtman.
The unconditional right to vote was initially not seen as important to spell out as a constitutional right. This is evident in the intentional absence of such a right in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights but also in numerous state laws from the era. In part, not clearly outlining this right was a deliberate avoidance of controversy regarding slavery, an institution that left deep scars in American democracy and led to the Civil War.
Following the Civil War, the 14th Amendment paved the way for Congress to grant the right of citizenship to freed slaves. On July 28, 1868, the Secretary of State William Seward passed the bill into law. On February 25, 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment and it was implemented on Feb 3rd, 1870. This bill expanded the noting of voting, declaring:
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Of course, as we know from the history that followed, the amendment did not outline the consequences that would follow if anyone tampered with this right. This led to widespread abuses like the Jim Crow Laws. The Voting Right Act of 1965 clarified the constitutional basis of the right to vote and led to a significant advance for voting rights. As explained by Richard H. Pildes and Bradley A. Smith of the Constitution Center:
“The Fifteenth Amendment does not play a major, independent role in cases today, its most important role might be the power it gives Congress to enact national legislation that protects against race-based denials or abridgements of the right to vote”.
Today, a movement to pass a new constitutional right to vote has many supporters including Democracy Chronicles friend organization FairVote. Supporters view an amendment as a way for the federal government to guarantee fair elections in all states. According to the way FairVote explains the argument in favor:
Enshrining an explicit right to vote in the Constitution would guarantee the voting rights of every citizen of voting age, ensure that every vote is counted correctly, and defend against attempts to enfranchise ineligible voters and disenfranchise eligible voters. It would empower Congress to enact minimum electoral standards to guarantee a higher degree of legitimacy, inclusivity, and consistency across the nation, and give our courts the authority to keep politicians in check when they try to game the vote for partisan reasons.
The Right to Vote Coalition has outlined a sample amendment they would like to see passed to add the right to vote into the Constitution. U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district Mark Pocan and U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district Keith Ellison have sponsored this amendment as House Joint Resolution 25. Ellison makes a strong case for action here:
Do you agree with this idea? Do you like the wording of the new amendment? Add your comments below!