Constitutional Amendment Proposed to Protect US Voters from Restrictive Voting Laws


Julian Moore
National Beat Reporter

Two House Democrats have introduced a Constitutional Amendment affirming the right of all citizens of voting age to participate in national elections in the United States. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) have co-sponsored an amendment aimed at protecting voters from what they call a systematic disenfranchisement by restrictive voting laws in states across the country. The announcement comes as the fate of some of the 1965 Voting Rights Act rests in the hands of the Supreme Court. If ratified, the amendment would be the only portion of the United States Constitution granting the right of all citizens to vote.

While the United States Constitution yet lacks a broad guarantee of all voting rights, it does contain numerous protections for specific groups. The 19th Amendment, ratified less than a century ago, protects voters’ rights from being “denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The 15th Amendment casts a broader stroke, prohibiting the federal government and the states from using a citizen’s race, color, or previous status as a slave as a qualification for voting.

Voting rights had been a politically dormant issue until 2008, when President Barack Obama first ran for office. Since then, according to the American Constitution Society, 30 states have passed laws aimed explicitly at impeding voter fraud. But such measures have historically carried the upshot of excluding or obstructing entire voting blocs from participating in elections. According to the Department of Justice, groups such as elderly, black, and poor voters have had their rights to vote undercut by restrictive state laws since, beginning at the end of the Civil War.

As a condition for rejoining the Union after the war, former Confederate states were forced to amend their state constitutions to allow for universal male suffrage by agreeing to the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867. But according to the Department of Justice, all-white state legislatures underwent a process called “Redemption” that included a number of measures to exclude black voters from elections. States have indeed been creative in coming up with ways to restrict voter access. In many Southern states, eligible voters could be disqualified for anything from failing a state-designed literacy test to committing a crime of “moral turpitude.”

But today, the most common form of voter purges, according to critics such as Pocan and Ellison, are the so-called “voter ID laws.” In states including Tennessee and Indiana, an otherwise eligible voter may not participate in an election unless they supply government-issued photo identification at their polling station. But according to the Brennan Center, about 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID. The study also concluded that those who lack valid photo ID were most often young people, those without college educations, Hispanics, and the poor.

The idea behind the new amendment is to reverse the responsibility of voters who must now protect themselves from intrusive laws.

“Essentially, what it would do is it would put the burden on any of these states that try to make laws that are more restrictive that they would have to prove that they’re not disenfranchising a voter,” Pocan said in an interview with Talking Points Memo. “Rather than, currently, where a voter has to prove they’ve somehow been wronged by a state measure.”

As for the likelihood that their amendment will be ratified, the two congressmen remain mum. Unlike a bill or resolution, the kinds of laws members of Congress usually craft, ratifying a Constitutional Amendment can be a centuries-long process. The most recent amendment adopted to the Constitution came in 1992 in the form of the 27thAmendment, which was submitted to the states for ratification in 1789. Part of the reason amendments are so rarely ratified is due to the arduous process of approval, which includes winning the consent of three-quarters of the state legislatures. The only other option for the Representatives would be to call a Constitutional Convention, which has never yielded a ratified amendment in the history of the United States.