We Need A Voters' Bill Of Rights

[ Posted Wednesday, December 5th, 2018 – 17:16 UTC ]

As time goes on, America seems to be taking a big step backwards on the long road toward voting equality for all. This election cycle saw a gubernatorial candidate refuse to recuse himself from overseeing the elections process in his current job; what appears to be a blatant effort to throw an election in North Carolina by a shady Republican operative; and the usual GOP bag of tricks when it comes to voter roll purges, long polling lines, and challenging in various ways the outcomes they didn't like. In short, if we're not already there, we're certainly approaching a crisis in confidence over the way Americans vote and the way those votes are counted.

Democrats come rather late to this fight, but that should not stop them from pushing back as hard as possible. And "as hard as possible" in American law should translate to a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of every eligible American to cast a vote and for that vote to be properly counted. We need a Voters' Bill Of Rights, plain and simple.

It's a constitutional oddity that while voting and elections are the one subject that has spawned more constitutional amendments since the original Bill of Rights was adopted than any other issue (the right of ex-slaves to vote, the right of women to vote, banishing poll taxes, the right of 18-year-olds to vote, etc.), there is still no explicit right to vote enshrined in the Constitution. There is no plain and simple language that states: "The right of every eligible citizen to cast a vote in a federal election shall not be infringed." That needs to change.

Democrats need to go big on this issue. They need to demand a Voters' Bill Of Rights. So far, House Democrats have taken a small step in this direction, by including in their first bill to be filed next year a number of steps towards reforming the elections process in America. However, some of the tangential issues in the proposed H.R. 1 are somewhat partisan in nature, and many of them don't deal directly with voting (things like changing the redistricting process -- which are important goals, but different from protecting the act of voting). Passing H.R. 1 would go a long way towards solving a number of different problems, but it still wouldn't enshrine the right to vote in the U.S. Constitution.

Democrats need to realize what a powerful issue this could be for them. If handled correctly, the issue should be one that every voter in America can agree with, because it really comes down to fairness. And fairness is an issue that cuts across partisan lines. Or should, at any rate. Who, after all, can argue against ensuring that everyone who is eligible gets to vote and that all their votes are properly counted? The opposing side to that argument is really indefensible.

What should a Voters' Bill Of Rights contain? Well, there are plenty of ideas floating around out there. The crucial test for inclusion should be that any idea has to deal directly with voting and the election system. Good ideas for related subjects should be rejected, no matter how beneficial they may be, because the ultimate goal is to create a document so nonpartisan that everyone can get on board with it. After all, an amendment has to pass the legislatures of three-fourths of the states, so being strictly nonpartisan is going to be a necessity. So things like redistricting or campaign finance reforms should not be allowed in, to keep the focus crystal-clear.

First and foremost, this amendment should state unequivocally that every citizen has the right to vote. As long as you are 18 years or older and not serving time for a crime, your right to cast a ballot should be inviolable. Furthermore, there should be stiff felony penalties including plenty of jail time for anyone who even attempts to disenfranchise any single voter or class of individual voters for any reason. Service in a government job (such as election supervisor) should not exempt anyone from these penalties -- in fact, the penalties for officials engaging in voter disenfranchisement should be stiffer. Purging voters unfairly from the registration lists should definitely be included as a possible violation as well.

Every voter should have the right to cast a paper ballot, so that recounts are possible and meaningful. No electronic-only systems should be allowed, ever again. Period. Each voter should have the right to cast a provisional ballot if there is any question about their registration. Absentee ballots should be universally available upon request -- no reason should be necessary other than: "I feel like voting absentee this year."

Election Day should either become a federal holiday or be moved to one that already exists (Veterans' Day would be the closest). Or possibly even moved to a weekend date. We need to make it easier for everyone -- workers included -- to cast a ballot. Furthermore, equality of elections resources should become a federal right. No more insanely-long lines at the polling places in inner-city or minority precincts, while suburbanites have dozens of empty machines to choose from. This should be made a violation of federal law, period. Polling resources should be allocated according to population density, and enough resources provided to make voting a smooth and timely process for all. No excuses.

Elections should be run at both the state and local level by independent, nonpartisan officials. The running of elections should be taken out of the hands of partisans and be made a purely bureaucratic duty. No longer should a candidate for high office be allowed to oversee the election they are running in.

It should also be a federal mandate that the states must implement automatic voter registration. Whenever any citizen interacts with any state government office, they should simultaneously be registered to vote unless they specifically opt out. Every time anyone renews their driver's license, their voter registration should be automatically updated, for instance. Also, anyone who has served their time for any felony (including parole and probation periods) should be automatically registered to vote. Unless "lifetime disenfranchisement" is specifically part of the sentence for any individual crime, when you have paid your debt to society then you should automatically be allowed to vote once again.

These are just a few of the ideas floating around out there. There are certainly others worthy of discussion as well (such as mandating a certain number of early voting days, for instance) -- what is outlined here should in no way be seen as a definitive list. But you'll note that in each and every case, the idea is purely about fairness and not about partisan politics at all. If Democrats have any hope of successfully amending the Constitution, this has to apply to anything included in the final draft. Everything needs to be fundamentally about the right to vote and the right to have those votes correctly counted. All Americans should have equal access to the ballot box, and no partisan official or state legislature should be able to stand in the way of that right.

Of course, this will become a partisan fight. But that certainly shouldn't stop Democrats from making the attempt. Amending the Constitution -- by design -- is not an easy or quick procedure. The effort may well take a decade or longer, but that daunting prospect should not dissuade Democrats from making the attempt. This is worth doing, even if it is going to be a very long road.

Politically, waging such a battle can only help Democrats. Republicans have, in the past, proposed constitutional amendments just to score political points and put Democrats in a bind. They've boosted their own voter turnout by whipping up a frenzy of concern over such issues as burning the flag (a relatively rare occurrence, but that didn't stop Republicans from trying to ban it with a constitutional amendment). Voting rights can be used as a similar political weapon against Republicans, because what could be more patriotic than fighting for everyone's right to vote? That is fighting for not just the American flag, but for what that flag is supposed to stand for, after all.

Republicans will attempt to make the claim that a Voters' Bill Of Rights is unnecessary. Democrats can counter this quite effectively by saying: "It might not always have been necessary, but Republicans have now made it necessary, by their own actions, in state after state."

America deserves this debate. America deserves a better election system, period. Every American voter deserves to have their right to vote respected by the officials in their own state. Nobody deserves to wait seven hours in a line to vote -- at least not without an immediate and massive federal court case to correct such abuses.

Democrats, as I mentioned, are rather late to this battle. Republicans have been coming up with all kinds of creative ways to diminish turnout from groups of people they don't want to see vote -- for decades, now. A Voters' Bill Of Rights would, ideally, address each and every one of these underhanded attempts at disenfranchisement, ensuring that they'll never happen again. Republicans will be forced to try to justify what they've been doing, and they'll be forced to fight against guaranteeing every voter the right to cast their ballot. That's a rather untenable position to be in, politically. Which is why this would be such a powerful issue for Democrats to champion.

It is time for Democrats to enter this fight in a big way. It is time for a Voters' Bill Of Rights to be added to the United States Constitution. Or else what happened in Georgia and North Carolina this year is just going to keep right on happening, over and over again.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


14 Comments on “We Need A Voters' Bill Of Rights”

  1. [1] 
    rdnewman wrote:

    So the 26th amendment reads

    Section. 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

    Section. 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

    Would simply removing the last four words of Section 1 achieve your intent

    There have been reasonably accepted exceptions for, say, felony incarceration, though that might need specification.

  2. [2] 
    Paula wrote:

    YES. Couldn't agree more.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    the problem with that is that the right of every citizen to easily vote currently IS a partisan issue. republicans are overwhelmingly supported by white protestant males, and to a lesser extent white protestant females. every other demographic leans democratic, every other demographic is growing, and every other demographic is more likely to have their voting restricted. the easier it is for people to vote, the lower the percentage of the electorate that will be white and protestant, and the more difficult it will be for republicans to be elected.

  4. [4] 
    neilm wrote:

    the lower the percentage of the electorate that will be white and protestant, and the more difficult it will be for republicans to be elected

    CW is spot on with this. Although getting 3/4 of the states to ratify this would probably take years, the raising of the issue in public will cause serious problems for Republicans who eke out a victory from a smaller and smaller base using more and more underhand tactics.

    In fact, this is a slippery slope for Republicans - the more they keep doubling down on white fear coupled with suppression, the more tarnished their brand will be with non-partisans and the oppressed. And the more daylight the Democrats shine on this, the worse it has to get to keep being effective.

    We are seeing blunt but shady tools giving way to desperate and illegal actions in NC. We are seeing the will of the people frustrated in WI. I don't expect it to get better before it gets worse however.

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    to quote lily tomlin, it's going to get a lot worse before it gets worse.


  6. [6] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Perhaps permanent disenfranchisement should be part of the penalty for any appointed or elected official who attempts to disenfranchise voters.

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    rdnewman - 1

    I like your minimalist approach. I don't think there should ANY exceptions. All citizens should have the right to vote. Including jailed citizens. Including jailed citizens who are politicians by trade.

  8. [8] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Neilm-4. The desperate and illegal actions of which you speak are not of recent origin or confined to any one region of the country. Dirty and illegal tricks are as old as The Republic. Periodic crackdowns occur when public outrage demands it. Secret ballots are relatively new in the USA.

  9. [9] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    "Who, after all, can argue against ensuring that everyone who is eligible gets to vote and that all their votes are properly counted?"

    You and several commenters in the recent discussion of mandatory lesser evil voting.

  10. [10] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    While many of the issues you raise are important, a constitutional amendment is not the way to accomplish those goals and is redundant.

    There is no specific right in the Constitution to contribute money to a political campaign.

    But the Supreme Court has ruled that contributing money to a political entity is an act of free speech.

    If contributing money to a political entity is an act of free speech, then voting for a political entity or for candidates is an act of free speech.

    Of course, no matter what the Constitution actually says it only matters what the courts say it says.

    So the constitutional amendment we really need is one that ends the lifetime appointments for judges which allows them to interpret the Constitution with impunity because they are not subject to the checks and balances that are a key component to our political system.

  11. [11] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    What the hell is wrong with you progressives?? You can't make progress without thinking outside that legendary box!!

    For instance, who says citizens under the age of 18 should be disenfranchised? Every citizen should have the right to vote, regardless of age.

    And, why are we locked into that archaic "one-person-one-vote" idea?? Votes should be apportioned inversely proportional to income and/or wealth (i.e., poor people ought to have more votes than rich people.) Same for complexion - the darker you are, the more votes you should be entitled to!

    Let's get progressive, progressives!

  12. [12] 
    TheStig wrote:


    What the hell is wrong with you Reactionaries? Let's get obsessive regressives!

  13. [13] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Yes, why stop at illegal immigrants, let's round up and deport all non european immigrants, keep the kids, deport the parents and lose the paperwork. and if the voters elect dems, take away the powers of their office like Wisconsin is doing, only to be restored when Republicans return to power.

  14. [14] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    Great article spot on...

    I find myself saddened that we have to have this discussion for something we should be leading on.

    In many Central and South American countries not only do they have early voting, it is also the only "holiday" that all businesses are required to close until after the polls close. Then it turns into an awesome fiesta. Unless of course shenanigans happen then there is hell to pay.

    Since we are looking at this little issue. We should also push to limit campaign season from the 2 year long cycle down to something reasonable like 6 months. personally i could go for 90 days... but hey that is just me.

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