In light of the recent election, I thought I would write a quick quiz for all you lawyer-types out there: Which constitutional amendment guarantees American citizens the right to vote? Don’t look ahead, just guess. If you said any number at all, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. In fact, there is no clause in the Constitution granting the right to vote. As with driving a car or staying up late on school nights, voting in the United States is a privilege, not a right. If you don’t believe me, look it up. Americans have the right to own a gun, but they do not possess the right to vote. This isn’t good; there needs to be a new constitutional amendment that explicitly enfranchises citizens.
But, you might argue, what about the 15th Amendment, giving people of all races the right to vote? Or the 26th Amendment, granting 18-year-olds the right to go to the polls? Well, the actual texts of each amendment do not give anyone the right to vote, but instead are non-discrimination clauses: They state that the right to vote “shall not be abridged or denied” on account of gender, age, race or previous condition of servitude.
Only states can grant citizens the privilege of voting. Of course, it’s easy to call me fussy for differentiating between having a right and not being denied a right. The Supreme Court, however, would disagree. Justice Antonin Scalia, in Bush v. Gore, continuously reminded lawyers that there is no explicit right to vote in the United States Constitution. The majority opinion agreed: “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 ).
According to federal law, citizens do not have the right to vote for electors, who in turn are not obligated to vote in the peoples’ interest. Most recently, in the 2004 election, an anonymous Minnesota elector voted for John Edwards, though most Minnesota voters cast their ballots for John Kerry, and Edwards wasn’t even running. Such “faithless” electors are not uncommon. Over the past two centuries, 156 electors have chosen not to vote for their party’s designated candidate. (To be fair, 71 of them changed their votes after the original candidate had died.) It is implausible, yet possible, that a future faithless elector will determine an election.
A constitutional right to vote is necessary to ensure the future of democracy in the United States. Voter disenfranchisement in past elections has not just been limited to Florida or Ohio. In February 2002, the Voting Technology Project, a joint study by Caltech and MIT, determined that four to six million votes nationwide were not counted in the 2000 election. Thousands of black and Latino voters have been disenfranchised in past elections because they were mistakenly identified as ex-felons. This may seem like old news, but it is important to realize that without a citizenship right to vote, there is no recourse for a disenfranchised potential voter other than complaining.
Additionally, citizens across the country are dissuaded from voting by crowding at understaffed voting facilities and long lines. There are 13,000 separately administered voting jurisdictions in the United States. As we learned last year from Ohio, where resources such as an adequate number of voting booths were often not distributed, such a system is inherently separate and unequal.
Several years ago, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, along with several dozen other members of Congress, proposed House Joint Resolution 28, a potential amendment to the Constitution that would grant American citizens the right to vote. Section 1 includes the explicit citizenship right to vote, while Section 2 reads, “Each State shall administer public elections in the State in accordance with election performance standards established by the Congress.” The amendment also mandates that states “provide any eligible voter the opportunity to register and vote on the day of any public election.”
The resolution has been stuck in committee, however, and has never been debated on the House floor. It would initially seem crazy to believe that a politician could oppose a right to vote for all American citizens. The problem, it seems, rests with felons: Once freed, they are once again citizens. In 38 states felons are disenfranchised while on parole, while in eight states they are permanently disenfranchised even upon release. Ex-felons, who regain all of their constitutional rights after serving their time, nevertheless lose their ability to vote. After the 2000 election, I do not think you need to hear the political costs of the disenfranchisement of ex-felons. However, modern legislators from the eight states that permanently prevent ex-felons from voting, just like the legislators who denied women suffrage until 1920, are so influential that because of them no American possesses the right to vote.
The absence of a right to vote is a glaring omission from the U.S. Constitution. Yalies, to say the least, can be influential when they want to be. Support the right to vote. No nation that lacks that right should be able to call itself democratic.
Niko Bowie is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.