Guarantee the Right to Vote

John Nichols // Published December 8, 2004 in The Nation

As US Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, chaired Tuesday's hearing on irregularities in the presidential voting in Ohio on November 2, the Rev. Jesse Jackson warned that the session must be more than merely an opportunity to "vent."

"We cannot vent and then have Congress not act. If these reports are not investigated, we have all wasted our time," the two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination declared. "This cannot simply be an academic venting session. Take this struggle to the streets and legitimize it there, as they did in Selma."

Jackson is right. There is no question that the voting and ballot counting processes in Ohio--and a number of other states--were deeply flawed. Those flaws are well outlined in the letter that Conyers and eleven other Democratic representatives sent earlier this month to Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. (Click hereto read the letter and other recent communications from Conyers to state and federal officials regarding the electoral troubles in Ohio.)

The letter, as well as testimony at today's hearing in Washington, makes a convincing case for continuing the examination of the mess that Blackwell, a Bush partisan, and his team made of the voting in Ohio on November 2. Necessarily, that examination must include the full recount requested by Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb and others.

But it is important to recognize that the sort of election problems that were discussed at Tuesday's hearing are not isolated to Ohio--just as the problems that came to light during the Florida recount fight of 2000 were not isolated to the Sunshine State.

The United States lacks a coherent and consistent set of standards for registering to vote, voting, counting ballots or recounting them. Thus, every election cycle brings new instances of disenfranchisement and doubts about the validity of the process.

On the eve of the Conyers hearing, the new group Progressive Democrats of America released a well-reasoned list of electoral reforms which can and should become central to the activism of everyone who is dissatisfied with the process--and the result--of the November 2 election. PDA argues that America needs:

* A Constitutional amendment confirming the right to vote.

* A required paper record for all electronic and electronically tabulated voting systems.

* Same-day registration for all Americans.

* The creation of unified federal standards for national elections.

* Meaningful equal protection of voting rights by such means as equal voting systems, equal numbers of machines, and equal time to vote.

* An end to partisan oversight of the electoral process.

* Extended voting periods to allow all voters a meaningful opportunity to vote.

* Instant Run-off Voting and Proportional Representation.

* Publicly financed elections for federal offices.

That's a long list. And the best place to begin is with the basics: guaranteeing the right to vote.

During the Supreme Court deliberations in 2000 on the Bush v. Gore case that ultimately determined the occupant of the White House, Justice Antonin Scalia went out of his way to establish that the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for the president of the United States. US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Illinois, has set out to rectify that glaring omission by proposing an amendment to the Constitution that would cure a lot of what ails our political process.

Here's the text of the amendment

SECTION 1. All citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, shall have the right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides. The right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, any State, or any other public or private person or entity, except that the United States or any State may establish regulations narrowly tailored to produce efficient and honest elections.

SECTION 2. Each State shall administer public elections in the State in accordance with election performance standards established by the Congress. The Congress shall reconsider such election performance standards at least once every four years to determine if higher standards should be established to reflect improvements in methods and practices regarding the administration of elections.

SECTION 3. Each State shall provide any eligible voter the opportunity to register and vote on the day of any public election.

SECTION 4. Each State and the District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall establish and abide by rules for appointing its respective number of Electors. Such rules shall provide for the appointment of Electors on the day designated by the Congress for holding an election for President and Vice President and shall ensure that each Elector votes for the candidate for President and Vice President who received a majority of the popular vote in the State or District.

The right-to-vote amendment is not all the reform that is needed. But if the goal of is to prevent future electoral fiascos--like Florida, Ohio or elsewhere--it is a vehicle for getting started. After all, who, aside from Antonin Scalia, would argue against the right to vote.