The long effort to roll back voting access (previously here and here), Obama’s recent speech at Selma, and now Oregon’s step toward automatic voter registration has again called my attention to our voting rights. So here’s my contribution: a draft constitutional amendment on voting.
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State.
Section 2. It is the duty of the United States, of the several states, and of local governments to ensure that all eligible citizens have an equal opportunity to vote for officers in their respective jurisdictions.
Section 3. To the extent that governments place regulations upon voting, it shall be the duty of those governments to ensure that all otherwise eligible voters are able to meet such regulations and have their ballot counted without cost to the voter. This includes but is not limited to regulations regarding time and place of elections; requirements for registration and identification; and proof of residency, age, and citizenship.
Section 4. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Section 1 is modeled after earlier amendments expanding voting rights across boundaries of race (15th) and sex (19th), eliminating the poll tax (24th), and lowering the age limit to 18 (26th). But instead of eliminating individual restrictions it formalizes the right to vote for all adult citizens.* In some ways, it’s shocking to me that such a positive statement is not already part of our Constitution.
Section 2 would reinforce existing equal opportunity language already in the Constitution by specifying a positive government responsibility to ensure voting access for all those in their jurisdiction. That would shift the burden of proof to government in disputes over ballot access.
Section 3 recognizes that some regulation will be necessary for orderly elections, including some provisions for voter identification. But, in keeping with section 2, it places the responsibility upon government to ensure that all citizens maintain their access to the ballot in the face of such regulations. It also expands the poll tax protections of the 24th Amendment to specify that any voting regulations must not involve a cost to individual voters.
The key here is to look beyond partisanship and instead focus on the proper relationship between government and citizens in a representative democracy. Each time a state legislature adopts a new regulation on voting without providing ensuring that such regulations don’t disenfranchise otherwise qualified voters, it is choosing which citizens it will have to be responsible to in the future. This is a dangerous power for a government to have, one which both parties have abused in the past. Such efforts are often couched in language about “protecting democracy.” In fact, they undermine the central premise that citizens should choose their government, not the other way around. This amendment is designed to correcting that abusive practice.
* I’m actually open to the idea of lowering the voting age further, but I’d prefer to see experimentation with that change begin at the local and state level.