- Why We Need a Right to Vote Amendment
- Landmarks in US Voting History and Law
- Our Campaign and What You Can Do
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Learn More: Recommended Resources
Why We Need a Right to Vote Amendment
Despite regular references to our “right to vote,” the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled no such affirmative right exists. Our Constitution directly mentions voting rights only in the negative, via Amendments that forbid disenfranchising citizens based on wealth, race, sex, or adult age.
From this, the Court has deemed voting a privilege for states to administer as they see fit, and will stand aside unless a state explicitly and deliberately violates the 15th, 19th, 24th or 26th Amendment. This position enables states (and other actors) to employ an expansive range of tactics to suppress voters.
The Chief Justice and a majority of current Justices have been hostile to voters and willing to override voting rights laws passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress. Thus, we can’t expect the Court to reverse precedent on its own.
Reclaim Democracy believes fundamental rights cannot be left to the temporal majorities in Congress or the Supreme Court and that citizens advance democracy most effectively by driving fundamental rights into the text of the Constitution. Accordingly, we work toward amending the Constitution with an affirmative right to vote and to ensure each person’s vote counts equally. See more about our campaign below.
Landmarks in Voting History and Law
U.S. Constitution (1787). Contains no federal voting rights. States decide who enjoys the privilege of voting: land-owning white men age 21 years and older. Presidential elections are made explicitly anti-democratic, and slave states are given disproportionate power in selecting the President.
More White Men Gain the Vote (1792-1856). As more states join the original 13, less-wealthy white men are enfranchised, starting with New Hampshire in 1792. North Carolina is the last state to remove property requirements in 1856.
Religious Requirements End for White Men (1828). Maryland becomes the last state to mandate Christian conformity.
Civil Rights Act of 1866. All people born in the US enjoy birthright citizenship, although not necessarily voting privileges.
15th Amendment (1870). Citizens cannot be denied the vote based on race. Despite the Amendment, discriminatory practices were used to prevent Blacks from voting, and Indigenous people remain voteless.
Native Americans Excluded from Voting (1876 and 1884)
The Supreme Court rules (1876) that Native Americans are not citizens with protections of the 14th Amendment and voting rights. The Court went even further in disenfranchising Native American in Elk v. Wilkins (1884). Read more on the evolution of native voting rights.
Direct Democracy (1898). South Dakota becomes the first state to enable citizens to make law via initiative and referendum.
Women Can Vote in Wyoming (1890). Upon statehood, Wyoming is the first to enfranchise women. Men outnumbered women 6:1 at the time of passage, so destination marketing may have played a role!
Indian Citizenship Act (1924). Grants Native Americans citizenship and voting privileges without disavowing their tribal affiliation, but 40 more years passed before Native Americans could vote in all 50 states. Learn more about barriers to Native voting.
McCarran-Walter Act (1952). Seventy years after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 blocked people of Chinese ancestry from becoming citizens. Asian immigrants are permitted to become naturalized citizens and vote.
24th Amendment (1964). Payment of poll or other taxes cannot be a requirement to vote.
Voting Rights Act (1965). Barred many forms of voter suppression and required states with a history of such suppression tactics to get Congressional approval before enacting new voting laws. (SCOTUS revoked in 2013, see below).
26th Amendment (1971). The voting age was reduced to 18 years and older.
Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (1984). Accessibility of polling places is mandated.
National Voter Registration Act (1993). Mandated that states make registering to vote reasonably convenient.
Bush v Gore (2000). While the immediate impact was to select George W. Bush the winner of a disputed election, overlooked was the 5-4 SCOTUS majority declaring citizens have no right to vote for presidential electors. The Justices believe Florida’s legislators could ignore citizens’ votes and cast electoral votes as they wish. Also in 2000, federal courts deny voting rights to citizens in Washington, DC and U.S. territories.
Help America Vote Act (2002). Established federal voter protection standards and strengthened election integrity after mass disenfranchisement and irregularities in 2000 led to a disputed presidential election outcome and the SCOTUS selecting George W. Bush as the winner (Bush v. Gore).
Shelby County v Holder (2013). Despite the Voting Rights Act being reauthorized by Congress by an overwhelming majority (unanimous in Senate), five SCOTUS Justices strike down Section 5 of the VRA. This provision prevented states with histories of voter suppression from enacting new election laws without federal approval (known as preclearance). States quickly passed or implemented (within hours!) policies that previously had been blocked.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore many key provisions the SCOTUS invalidated in Shelby. The bill was passed by the U.S. House in 2019. Senate Republicans refused to consider the bill, but hearings are likely in February of 2021 after Democrats won control of the Senate.
Reclaim Democracy’s Campaign and What You Can Do
First, we support voting rights provisions under consideration by Congress. HR4 (“The John Lewis Voting Rights Act”), which passed the House in December of 2019, would restore many protections the Supreme Court stripped from citizens with its 2013 Shelby v Holder ruling. (HR 4 overview here). HR1 / S1 (“For the People Act”) would banish many common disenfranchisement tactics and procedural problems (bill summary).
As we state in the introduction, however, a majority of current Supreme Court Justices may seek any plausible opportunity to strike down or weaken legislative protections for voters. They’ve already denied our Constitution’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” applies to voters.
Also, the bills mentioned above are complex, multi-faceted, and likely will go through many changes. HR1 covers dozens of issues and spans more than 1000 pages! That does not diminish their value, but creates challenges for average citizens to follow, understand, and mobilize around them. While building momentum toward a Constitutional Amendment may be a long-term effort, it may also be the most powerful way to engage citizens immediately and build political pressure to pass voting rights legislation.
There is value in mobilizing citizens around these clear and simple principles:
- All citizens have the right to choose their representatives.
- All citizens have an affirmative right to vote and have that vote counted equally.
- Our federal government must protect these rights and not leave them to the whims of state legislators
In the words of Reclaim Democracy! founder, Jeff Milchen, “The survival of fundamental rights must not depend on fleeting majorities within Congress or the Supreme Court. We advance democracy and secure our rights by driving them into the Constitution.”
Specific Actions You Can Take
Discuss the need for an affirmative right to vote with your friends, family, on social media, calling in to talk radio, and more. Movements begin with a broadly shared consensus that a fundamental injustice must be corrected.
Write about it. Letters to the editor (use our guide and bcc us) and to your elected officials are key channels.
Work with local or state non-profits or political parties and suggest adding a platform plank or statement of support for an RTV Amendment (ask us for tips and sample language). This also is a great approach for many involved in civil rights, pro-democracy work, etc.
Meet with your local editorial board. Organize 2-5 people representing different local constituencies and seek to meet with your local newspaper board, with the goal of educating them on the issue and perhaps writing an editorial. See our guide to organizing editorial board meetings.
Engage us! We welcome your ideas to grow this effort with ideas for videos, graphics, current news hooks, state-specific outreach, and more. We’ll gladly help motivated writers succeed in publishing guest commentaries in your region. We’re now planning to resume public presentations in October of 2021, learn more about Reclaim Democracy’s presentations, here.
Q. Don’t we already have constitutional Amendments that secure our voting rights?
A. The 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments prohibit withholding voting rights based on a person’s race, sex, or (adult) age, and the 24th Amendment bars disenfranchisement by poll taxes. However, all amendments are framed negatively, meaning a state cannot discriminate against a citizen for those specific reasons. The door is open for disenfranchisement through many other tactics, even if their effect is clearly discriminatory.
Q. As of 2021, bills are pending in Congress that would banish many of the common vote suppression tactics. Why not wait to see if they pass?
A. As we detail above, we encourage legislative reforms and present our Amendment strategy as a complement to, not a replacement of, legislative work. We should push toward an Amendment regardless of legislative progress for three major reasons: First, strong voting rights protections may not pass the Senate unless Democrats alter or terminate the filibuster, which they have thus far refused to do.
Second, it’s challenging for many citizens to follow long, complex, and changing bills and effectively support them. A clear rights-based Amendment that drives forward foundational principles (without detailed implementation language), is a far better vehicle for organizing public support. Such support may well help force passage of legislation that would otherwise be blocked.
Lastly, we currently have a federal judiciary and Supreme Court that’s been packed with anti-democratic judges, including a Chief Justice (John Roberts) who is deeply rooted in voter suppression. We cannot trust that strong, thorough legislation will survive court challenges.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his opinion upholding the Trump administration’s “Muslim travel ban” that even Trump’s public admissions of discriminatory intent did not prove bias, because the lawyers wrote the order without mentioning Islam. By this logic, a law specifically designed to disenfranchise certain voters would be constitutional as long as the backers did not state a specific intent in the legislation. As we noted above, the right to vote is too important to leave to a court’s discretion.
Have a question you’d like to see answered here? Ask us!
Learning More: Recommended Resources
Books (Many books document the civil rights voting struggle; these are a few that speak to the need for a Right to Vote Amendment).
- The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Alexander Keyssar (2009). Authoritative history of voting rights, includes early American history not covered by others.
- The Fight to Vote, Michael Waldman (2017). Waldman focuses on recent history and weaves campaign finance and corporate power into the fight for voting rights.
- One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, Carol Anderson (2019). Note: 150 pages of narrative followed by exhaustive endnotes.
- Give Us the Ballot, Ari Berman (2016).
- Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America, Gilda R. Daniels (2020).
- The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote and How to Get It Back, Thom Hartmann (2020). A quick read with great anecdotes.
- For a deep dive, see “Notes on Sources” section in The Fight to Vote (pp. 269-284), which describes the focus of many more books and articles.
- 43 Ways to Disenfranchise and Suppress Voters
- Key Elements of a Right to Vote Amendment
- Demos report: The Case for Expanding the Right to Vote
- Whose Vote Counts? A Netflix documentary series on voting rights
- So what is the Voting Rights Act?
- FairVote resources on advancing a Right to Vote Amendment.
- In Pursuit of an Affirmative Right to Vote. A report by Advancement Project