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Why We Need a Right to Vote Amendment

March 13, 2010
By Jeff Milchen

“Don’t We Already Have the Right to Vote?” is usually the first reaction when Americans hear calls for a Right to Vote Amendment.

The answer? No.

True, the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination in granting the franchise based on a person’s race, sex, or (adult) age via the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments. The 24th Amendment also bars disenfranchisement via poll taxes. Yet all of these restrictions do not equate to an affirmative right to vote. The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has affirmed that governments within the U.S. can (and do) disenfranchise individuals and groups of citizens, and so long as they do it without provable bias, it is presumed to be legal.

In the 2000 case of Alexander v Mineta (in which Washington D.C. residents challenged their lack of congressional representation), the Court declared the Constitution “does not protect the right of all citizens to vote, but rather the right of all qualified citizens to vote.” And it’s state legislatures wield the power to decide who is “qualified.”

Just months after Alexander, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority in Bush v Gore denied Florida citizens a right to ensure their votes were counted, saying, “the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote [for presidential electors].” Tens of thousands of Floridians who were purged wrongly from the voting rolls were denied recourse.

The Bush v. Gore ruling also meant Florida’s legislators could have followed through on their threats to simply disregarded citizens’ votes and choose electors themselves. This is why a right to vote also must ensure our votes are accurately and transparently counted and that votes determine the outcomes of elections. Our separate and unequal hodgepodge of state, county and (13,000+) voting districts fails to achieve this.

Voting in the United States presently is not a right, but a privilege — one granted or withheld at the discretion of local and state governments. The U.S. is one of just 11 among 120 or so constitutional democracies that fail to guarantee a right to vote in their constitutions (as of 2005). Right or wrong, the Supreme Court has made its interpretation of the Constitution clear. If U.S. citizens are to enjoy a true right to vote and have those votes count, we must drive that right into the Constitution.

Resources for further information

See the U.S. Department of Justice website for additional background on the Voting Rights Act and federal law.


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