- Why We Need a Right to Vote Amendment
- Our Campaign and What You Can Do
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Learn More: Recommended Resources
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.
Reclaim Democracy’s Campaign and What You Can Do
First, we support voting rights provisions under consideration by Congress. HR1 / S1 (“For the People Act“) is a powerful package that will banish many common disenfranchisement tactics and procedural problems. It passed the House in early March with zero Republican votes, so passing the senate will depend on Democrats choosing between protecting the filibuster or reforming it to pass this. We also are encouraged by HR4 (“The John Lewis Voting Rights Act”), which passed the House in December of 2019. It would restore many protections the Supreme Court stripped from citizens with its 2013 Shelby v Holder ruling. (See HR4 overview).
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 Right to Vote 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.
- A Leap Forward for Democracy Is within Our Grasp (Overview of “For the People Act”)
- 49 Ways to Disenfranchise and Suppress Voters
- Landmarks in Voting History & Law
- 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