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Americans Need the Right to Vote

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Location: Washington, DC


AMERICANS NEED THE RIGHT TO VOTE -- (House of Representatives - September 15, 2004)

The SPEAKER pro tempore. Under the Speaker's announced policy of January 7, 2003, the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Jackson) is recognized for 60 minutes as the designee of the minority leader.

Mr. JACKSON of Illinois. Mr. Speaker, the Congressional Black Caucus today will be hosting here on the floor a special order regarding the protection of the fundamental right to vote for all Americans. Given the crucial nature of the up and coming election, the caucus' chairman, the gentleman from Maryland (Mr. Cummings) and other members of the CBC have requested this time to talk with all Americans about some fundamental flaws that exist in our system.

Mr. Speaker, the Bible tells us, in the story of Matthew, of a wise man who built his house on a rock, and when the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon his house, it did not fall because he built it on a rock. But there was a foolish man who built his house on sand, and when the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and beat against his house, it fell.

Mr. Speaker, elections in the United States are like the foolish man who built his house on sand. Our election system is built on the sand of States' rights. We need to build it on a rock, the rock of a new amendment to the Constitution, affirmatively guaranteeing every American an individual right to vote and granting Congress the authority to create a unitary voting system.

The United States sees itself as the center of world democracy, so most Americans will be surprised, even shocked, to discover that we do not have the right to vote. Unlike the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of an individual right to freedom of religion, to freedom of press, to freedom of assembly, the individual right to vote is not in the Constitution.

Most Americans are also unaware that, according to a joint study by Caltech and MIT, somewhere between 4 and 6 million votes nationally were not counted in 2000. Many States had similar problems to what occurred in Florida. My State of Illinois was the worst. Florida got the attention only because of the closeness of their vote.

Voting in America is overseen by 13,000 different election administrations, all separate and unequal, which is reminiscent of the legal theory that established Jim Crow segregation for 58 years as a result of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

The 15th, 19th and 26th amendments prohibit discrimination in voting on the basis of race, sex and age respectively, but they do not affirmatively guarantee the right to vote. Voting in America is essentially a 10th amendment issue, States rights, and therefore we end up with 50 different State systems, 3,067 different county systems and 20,000 different municipal systems in the United States.

The Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore that the individual citizen has no fundamental constitutional right to vote for electors for President of the United States. In other words, Florida's State right to oversee the election took precedence over counting every individual vote; or legally, States rights triumphed over individual rights. In essence the Court said since there is no affirmative right to vote in the Constitution, what does the Florida State statute say? It says that the former Secretary of State is in charge of the election, and according to Florida law, all of the votes must be counted by midnight, December 12.

Since the Court decision came down at 10 p.m. on December 12, the Secretary of State said, in essence, if you cannot count all of the votes in the next 2 hours, President Bush is the President. But just in case the Court had ordered all of the votes counted and it turned out that Vice President Gore had won the most popular votes in Florida, the Republican controlled, or it could be a Democratic controlled, legislature had a backup plan: Based on the fact there is no right to vote in the Constitution of the United States for the individual citizen, that the Constitution says the right to elect electors resides in the State legislature. The Florida State legislature was prepared to ignore the 6 million popular votes, elect their own electors and send them to Congress for certification. That would have been both legally and constitutionally permissible.

The Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, is not the answer. It is built on sand, States' rights. I am convinced if Congress had the will, under our current Constitution it could do much more than HAVA to strengthen the administration of a unitary voting system and protect and fully count all votes.

But I am unconvinced, absent a voting rights amendment, that any solution to these and any of our other most pressing voting rights problems will be universal or sustainable. How do we change the current system and prevent another Florida, another Illinois, or some Ohio or some other State from undermining our election system? How can we achieve equal protection under the law in 13,000 separate and unequally administered voting jurisdictions? Some voting jurisdictions use computers. Others use punch card voting. Some allow Internet voting, others do not. Some allow lever voting systems. Some voters simply write an "X" next to the candidate of their choice; all separate and all unequal.

If we as Americans can guarantee for the people of Afghanistan the fundamental right to vote, and we can guarantee the fundamental right to vote for the people of Iraq, then of course we should be able to guarantee for every single American the fundamental right to vote.

Look at the issue of felons. In the State of Illinois if one commits a felony, after one has served their time, the State of Illinois under State law reenfranchises felons. In Florida once one commits a felony, one will never be reenfranchised because the State prohibits felons who have served their time from ever regaining the franchise. But in Vermont, even if you are in jail you are still allowed to vote in presidential and local elections, in some local elections.

Mr. Speaker, we need to guarantee the fundamental right to vote for every single American in our Constitution and only by adding an affirmative right to vote amendment to the Constitution, such an amendment would give Congress the power to establish a unitary voting system, ensure that every vote is counted, and grant equal protection under the law for all voters.

House Joint Resolution 28 is such an amendment, and I urge Members to sign on as cosponsors.

Mr. Speaker, no one has been traveling across the country as much, analyzing the Nation's voting system and trying to raise the consciousness of the Congress to guarantee and secure democracy for all Americans quite like the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, the gentleman from Maryland (Mr. Cummings).

Fighting for a Right To Vote Constitutional Amendment
(By Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.)

Most Americans believe that the "legal right to vote" in our democracy is explicit (not just implicit) in our Constitution and laws. However, our Constitution only provides for non-discrimination in voting on the basis of race, sex, and age in the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments respectively.

The U.S. Constitution contains no explicit affirmative individual right to vote!

Even though the "vote of the people" is perceived as supreme in our democracy-because voting rights are protective of all other rights-the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore constantly reminded lawyers that there is no explicit or fundamental right to suffrage in the Constitution--"the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States." (Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 104 (2000).

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia besieged Gore's lawyer with inquiries premised on the assumption that there is no constitutional right of suffrage in the election of a president, and state legislatures have the legal power to choose presidential electors without recourse to a popular vote. "In the eyes of the [Supreme] Court, democracy is rooted not in the right of the American people to vote and govern but in a set of state-based institutional arrangements for selecting leaders." (Overruling Democracy-The Supreme Court v. The American People, by James B. Raskin, p. 7)

While a voting rights constitutional amendment would be strictly non-partisan, nevertheless, the 2000 election is a splendid example of the undemocratic nature of our currently administered election systems-and there are literally thousands of them. Each state and the District of Columbia (51), counties (3,067), and thousands of municipalities administer their own election system under state law, with great flexibility on many issues in the variously administered voting jurisdictions. That's the chaotic dynamic that was in play in Florida's 67 counties.

In 2000, if every American had had an individual constitutional right to vote, every vote would have had to be counted. However, under our current "states' rights" arrangement the state legislature and state law took legal precedence over the individual vote and the individual voter.

It is also important to point out that if candidate George Bush had lost in the Supreme Court in 2000, Florida's Republican-controlled legislature was prepared to ignore the six million popular votes cast in Florida. Under state law, they were determined to elect, select, choose, and hand pick, if necessary, their own "Bush presidential electors" and send them to Congress for certification-even if it had turned out that Al Gore won the most popular votes in Florida.

Thus, in terms of the political consequences of our present arrangement, if all of the votes legally cast in 2000 had been counted, Al Gore and not George Bush would be President of the United States today.

The principled commitment ought to be honest, fair and efficient elections for everyone, for all time. However, after 2000, any Democrat who cannot support adding a voting rights amendment to the Constitution ought to be asked to explain why!

Thus, even if all votes had been counted and Al Gore had won Florida's popular vote, and his electors had been sent to Congress, under our current Constitution the Florida legislature could have sent their slate of Bush electors to Congress and it would have been perfectly legal-and a "strict constructionist" or necessary constitutional interpretation-for Congress to have recognized the Bush electors.

Only a Voting Rights Amendment can fix these flaws in our Constitution and administration of elections.

The 10th Amendment to the Constitution states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the State, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Since the word "vote" appears in the Constitution only with respect to non-discrimination, the so-called right to vote is a "state right." Only a constitutional amendment would give every American an individual affirmative citizenship right to vote.

Without the constitutional right to vote, Congress can pass voter legislation-and I support progressive electoral reform legislation-but it leaves the "states' rights" system in place. Currently, Congress mostly uses financial and other incentives to entice the states to cooperate and comply with the law. It's one reason there have been so many problems with the recently passed Help America Vote Act, and why many states still have not fully complied with the law.

Our "states' rights" voting system is structured to be "separate and unequal." As we saw in the 2000 election, there are 50 states, 3,067 counties, tens of thousands of cities, and many different machines and methods of voting-all "separate and unequal."

There's only one way to legally guarantee "an equal right to vote" to every individual American and that is to add a Voting Rights Amendment to the Constitution!

The lack of basic political rights for all Americans was made even clearer in Alexander v. Mineta, a case to gain political representation for the disenfranchised citizens in our nation's capital, the District of Columbia. Ignoring the democratic ideal of voting, the court said, "The Equal Protection Clause does not protect the right of all citizens to vote, but rather the right of all qualified citizens to vote" (Alexander v. Daley, 90 F. Supp. 2d, 35, 66, emphasis added) "To be qualified, you must belong to a 'state' within the meaning of Article I and the Seventeenth Amendment and must be granted the right to vote by the state." (Overruling Democracy-The Supreme Court vs. The American People, By Jamin B. Raskin, p. 36)

I believe that voting is not only a democratic right, it's a human right. That human right is not in our Constitution! That's why I have proposed legislation to add a voting rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution based on the individual right of all Americans to vote. It was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives as House Joint Resolution 28. It reads as follows:

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled (two-thirds of each House concurring therein), That the following article is proposed as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States:

'Section 1. All citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years or age or older, shall have the right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides. The right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United Sates, any State, or any other public or private person or entity, except that the United States or any State may establish regulations narrowly tailored to produce efficient and honest elections.

'Section 2. Each State shall administer public elections in the State in accordance with election performance standards established by the Congress. The Congress shall reconsider such election performance standards at least once every four years to determine if higher standards should be established to reflect improvements in methods and practices regarding the administration of elections.

'Section 3. Each State shall provide any eligible voter the opportunity to register and vote on the day of any public election.

'Section 4. Each State and the District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall establish and abide by rules for appointing its respective number of Electors. Such rules shall provide for the appointment of Electors on the day designated by the Congress for holding an election for President and Vice President and shall ensure that each Elector votes for the candidate for President and Vice President who received a majority of the popular vote in the State or District.

'Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.'

With this amendment in the Constitution, all of the votes in 2000--to the best of our human ability and using credible and uniform criteria-would have had to have been counted. No unnecessary or arbitrary timeline cutoff would have been allowed with regard to counting votes. And the Florida legislature could not have even thought about ignoring the six million popular Florida votes in order to select presidential electors independent of the popular vote. Under this amendment, the popular vote could never be ignored and an independent legislative selection of electors could never happen.

In light of the presidential fiasco in Florida in 2000, and during the South Carolina Democratic presidential candidate's debate on May 3, 2003, Rev. Al Sharpton asked Florida Senator Bob Graham if he would support adding a voting rights amendment to the Constitution. In essence he said the following: "I haven't seen the legislation, but probably not. I believe states should remain in control of election procedures. And I'm against federalizing the election process."

Let's analyze his statement.

1. It means Senator Graham essentially supports the status quo when it comes to voting rights because, under current law, 2000 could happen again in Florida or elsewhere. The winner of the popular vote losing has happened three previous times in our history--1824, 18776 and 1888. Most Americans are totally unaware that, nationally, according to a joint study by the California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, somewhere between four and six million votes were not counted in 2000 because many states had similar problems to what occurred in Florida. Other states' election systems didn't get the same exposure as Florida's because the winner in other states was not in doubt. For example, Illinois was worse than Florida-it didn't count nearly 200,000 votes with similar problems to Florida's-but because Gore won Illinois by over 300,000 votes, the winner of the state's electoral votes was not in doubt. In Illinois and other states too, most of the problems-with voting and machines-were concentrated in the poor and minority communities.

"Amazingly, the government of the United States conducts and provides no official count of the vote for president." (Overruling Democracy-The Supreme Court vs. The American People, by Jamin B. Raskin, p. 66) Can you imagine the United States recognizing a close and hotly contested third world "democratic" election where the citizens had no right to vote, as much as six percent of the total vote was not counted; where there were no official results provided by the government; and where that country's Supreme Court declared its personal and ideological friend the winner, even though the declared winner did not get the most popular votes?

2. It means Senator Graham supports "states' rights" when it comes to voting rights. But I would remind Senator Graham and others, slavery was not supported directly in the Constitution. The word "slavery" never appeared in the Constitution. Slavery was supported constitutionally because states had a right--"states' rights"-to provide legal cover allowing private citizens to own other human beings. That same states' rights system was at work in the 2000 election with respect to voting and it continues today.

3. H.J. Res. 28 does not federalize voting any more than the First Amendment federalizes free speech or freedom of religion. The First Amendment's right to free speech and religion is an individual citizenship right applicable to every American-not a "federal" right-protected by the federal government and its courts. It's an individual right that can be upheld in a federal court of law. Likewise, a voting rights amendment would grant every American an individual citizenship right to vote that, because it would be a right for every American, would ultimately be validated by Congress through legislation, and the Supreme Court through interpretation.

4. In essence, then, in the South Carolina debate, Senator Graham chose "states' rights" over an "individual right."

5. Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a letter to the National Rifle Association asserting that every American has an individual constitutional right to a gun. In it he wrote; "Let me state unequivocally my view that the text and the original intent of the Second Amendment clearly protect the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms." Some agree and others disagree with that interpretation.

However, there can be no debate or disagreement about the right to vote. The Supreme Court made it absolutely clear in Bush v. Gore-there is no individual citizenship right to vote in the Constitution!

If Americans had a choice between the right to a gun and the right to vote, it would be nearly unanimous. Americans would choose the right to vote! If that is the priority of the American people, then we should have the wisdom and political will to codify it in the form of a constitutional amendment.

What are the advantages of fighting for human rights and constitutional amendments? Human rights and constitutional amendments are non-partisan (they're neither Democratic nor Republican), they're non-ideological (they're not liberal, moderate, or conservative), they're non-programmatic (they don't require a particular means, approach or program to realize them), and they're non-special interest (they're for all Americans). We can experiment to find the best means of fulfilling such a constitutional right!

August 6th was the 38th anniversary of the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the Voting Rights Act is really misnamed and, to some extent, misleading. It's not actually a voting rights act. In fulfillment of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, added in 1870, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was actually a non-discrimination in voting act.

To fulfill the democratic ideal, an affirmative voting rights constitutional amendment still lies in the future. According to Harvard's constitutional law professor Alexander Keyssar one-hundred-and-eight (108) of the one-hundred-and-nineteen (119) nations in the world that elect their representatives to all levels of government in some democratic fashion explicitly guarantee their citizens the right to vote in their constitution. Both Afghanistan's constitution and Iraq' interim legal document contains a right to vote. The United States is one of the eleven nations in the world that doesn't provide an explicit right to vote in its Constitution.

If we pass a new voting rights amendment, the next civil rights movement will emerge fighting for congressional legislation that can advance even further the central democratic idea of universal voting-only partially enabled through the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Motor Voter and the Help America Vote Act. With a voting rights amendment, a new civil rights movement would emerge to fight to fully implement the amendment, while also using the federal courts to interpret voting rights more fully.

What can I do? If you would like to help me put this voting rights amendment in the Constitution, call your congressperson at 202-225-3121 (or call their local office) and urge them to become a co-sponsor of H.J. Res. 28. If you need more information about this legislation call my office at 202-225-0773.

Mr. Speaker, I yield the balance of my time to the gentleman from Maryland (Mr. Cummings), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The SPEAKER pro tempore (Mr. Cole). The Chair will reallocate control of the balance of the leadership time to the gentleman from Maryland (Mr. Cummings).

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