Voting for Reform

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, June 21, 2005)

Rep. Jesse Jackson says he’s sick of seeing Republicans use proposed constitutional amendments to divide the country over social issues like gay marriage and flag burning. Instead, the Illinois congressman wants to unite Americans around a constitutional amendment ensuring the right to vote at the federal level.

“The Bush v. Gore decision of 2000 indicated very clearly … that the individual citizen enjoys no federal constitutional right to vote in the United States; that the right to vote is a state right,” Jackson, an Illinois Democrat, said at the June 11 kickoff of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition’s 34th annual convention in Chicago. “Therefore, we end up with 50 different state systems.”

Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 experienced widespread voting problems that effectively voided the votes of large — and possibly decisive — numbers of US citizens. In 2000, then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris notoriously cast a “wide net” in removing former felons from the voter rolls, and the majority of the roughly 12,000 voters purged (many of them African-American) were wrongfully removed. In Ohio last November, voters in minority districts complained of long lines, misallocated voting machines, and reports of intimidation at the polls.

Speeches and panel discussions on voting reform featured prominently in the Rainbow/PUSH’s five-day convention last week. The coalition’s founder (and two-time presidential candidate) Rev. Jesse Jackson structured the first two days around three specific voting-rights goals: his congressman son’s amendment creating a constitutional right to vote, expansion of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) reforms and the renewal of those parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that expire in 2007.

That landmark 1965 legislation, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, outlawed discriminatory measures such as the poll tax and the literacy test that some states used to disfranchise African-American voters. Citing the recent disfranchisement in Florida and Ohio, Democrats vowed to make voting reform a priority. They were admittedly preaching to the choir (Some sessions were held literally in Rev. Jesse Jackson’s church), but audience questions and comments attested to lingering bitterness over back-to-back presidential elections featuring widespread voting irregularities.

“It is an outrage that in America anybody should have any reason to doubt their vote,” former Sen. John Edwards said. “How about we actually build the best election system money can buy so that the next time you go to the polls to choose the leader of the free world, you don’t have any doubt that you’re going to be allowed to vote and that your vote will actually be counted.”

Of course, HAVA was supposed to solve many of the disfranchisement problems that contributed to the Florida fiasco four years ago. That law introduced some important advances, most notably the use of provisional ballots (which let citizens vote even if their name has been wrongly removed from the official registration list). But HAVA didn’t do anything about partisan election officials, controversial electronic-voting machines, or myriad other problems that came up last Nov. 2.

DNC chairman Howard Dean said he expects the release this week of a report by a legal task force on what went wrong in Ohio last time around – a report he said found serious instances of voter suppression among myriad other concerns. “As chairman, of course I’d rather have a Democratic candidate win every time,” Dean said. “But if I’m going to lose, I’d like to lose an election where 100 percent of the people can vote.”

Earlier this year, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-Ohio) introduced H.R. 939, the Count Every Vote Act, which essentially picks up where HAVA left off. (Hillary Clinton introduced the Senate version; both bills are currently referred to committee.) At least in its not-yet-amended version, the bill’s proposed reforms include: allowing same-day registration to encourage higher turnout, making Election Day a national holiday, enforcing provisional ballots nationwide, creating a transparent process for removing voters from the rolls and setting minimum standards for how voting machines and precinct workers are allotted.

“Another thing is we’re requiring a verifiable paper trail,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich)., ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of Tubbs-Jones’s bill. “Unless we have those assurances that we can track each vote and make sure that it’s counted, we’re going to have problems. We also have to make sure that some of the people who produce the election equipment are not involved with the electoral counting and tallying process.”

The assembled speakers also promised to work on the Voting Rights Act, parts of which need to be reauthorized every 25 years. The sections expiring in 2007 include those mandating bilingual assistance for certain jurisdictions, requiring the federal government to approve procedural changes in areas that formerly used the literacy test to disfranchise voters, and authorizing the use of federal observers in areas with reports of voter intimidation.

With Democrats still outnumbered in Congress, Jackson acknowledged the, well, elephants in the room. “I’m going to do everything I can between now and 2006 to make sure that Democrats are in charge on Congress so that when the Voting Rights Act comes up for renewal, it will get the appropriate hearing it deserves.” But if the GOP wins out, Jackson told the largely progressive crowd that they must be prepared to lobby and deal with Republicans if they want to save the act.

Dean took that a step further, challenging the Republicans to lead on the VRA. “If the Republican Party is serious about making a pitch for African-American votes, they had better support the reauthorization, and George Bush had better make sure it gets to his desk and that he signs it,” Dean said. “I do not want to hear any more about [RNC chairman] Ken Mehlman going to African-American churches. They ought not to get even 2 percent of the African-American vote in 2008 if we don’t have a Voting Rights Act.”

Both Count Every Vote and the VRA re-authorization require a simple majority, and there is reason to hope at least some Republicans will get on board. HAVA did pass both houses, and the Voting Rights Act had provisions re-authorized when they came up during the Reagan years. From a political perspective, Bush roughly doubled his percentage of the African-American vote from 2000 to 2004, and Mehlman has made a concerted effort to grow that number for the GOP. And if Republicans don’t support these measures, Dean said his party will do what it can to make voting rights more of an issue in future races.

Even if such reforms generate enough Republican support to become law, Jackson still feels a need for his amendment (introduced as House Joint Resolution 28) as a “floor” to establish national standards for who gets to vote. In a Sunday panel discussion, Harvard history professor Alan Keyssar argued for the amendment by rattling off historical examples of states contracting voting rights, from Southern states’ infamous use of poll taxes to Massachusetts amending its state constitution in 2000 to take the vote away from felons.

For Rep. Jackson, that track record is reason enough to push for a permanent change in the voting system.

“[An amendment] is the only way we can resolve this,” Jackson said. “I’m for Help America Vote and these other pieces of legislation. But if the people of Iraq and Afghanistan can have the right to vote written affirmatively into their constitutions, it’s time for we as Americans to have a constitutional right to vote.”

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