Civil rights leader and former presidential hopeful Rev. Jesse Jackson wants to drum up support for a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing all Americans the right to vote, and he came to Cincinnati yesterday on his quest to get it.
Jackson appeared at yesterday's Cincinnati City Council meeting to make his case, highlighting the fact that voting rules are often left up to state and local authorities, creating a “separate and unequal” system. The constitution guarantees free speech and the right to bear arms, he said, but neglects to explicitly extend voting as a right to all citizens.
“For too long, too few Americans could vote to call this country, legitimately, a democracy.” Jackson said, noting that before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which sought to abolish Jim Crow laws suppressing the black vote, “America survived apart.” He called the act of voting “perhaps the most fundamental landmark in this democracy.” Yesterday was the 49th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Despite the progress made by the Voting Rights Act, a constitutional amendment is still needed, Jackson said. He highlighted recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down some sections of the Voting Rights Act, as well as the byzantine system of state, county and local rules that govern voting. There are more than 13,000 local municipalities and voting jurisdictions in the United States.
Despite the high hurdles in front of his idea, Jackson had little trouble getting some symbolic help from city council yesterday, which voted 7-0 to pass a motion expressing support for his efforts.
Council members had high praise for Jackson.
“We appreciate your presence, we appreciate your leadership on so many issues of so much importance,” said Vice Mayor David Mann.
“These kinds of movements always start in the grassroots and move toward the top,” said Councilman Wendell Young. “I’m glad that a good start is being made here in Cincinnati.”
The Bill of Rights does not mention voting among the rights it enumerates.
Recent battles over early voting in Ohio illustrate the lack of a national standard and the patchwork of rules from state to state when it comes to voting accessibility. Ohio Republicans have moved to restrict early voting times in the state, including evenings and Sundays leading up to elections, when many black voters go to the polls.
Ohio’s General Assembly passed laws in February eliminating six early voting days and same-day voter registration. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, subsequently eliminated early voting the last two Sundays before elections and on weekday evenings during the days before elections.
The move has caused ire among voting rights activists and has led to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Justice Department last month signaled it would join the ACLU in that suit.
Husted’s cuts to early voting the Sunday before elections were undone when a federal district court judge ruled that the state must reinstitute early voting during the final three days before an election. Despite that victory, the other cuts have yet to be restored and are the grounds for the ACLU suit.
“We want to end the confusion around the right to vote as a fundamental right,” Jackson said of his proposal. He came to Cincinnati to make his case, he said, because the city has played an important role in social justice issues.
“This place has a certain history, beyond just a museum, a certain living history in this quest for social justice,” Jackson said, referencing the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and highlighting important visits by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The city has seen more than its share of race-related turmoil as well, of course, including the police shooting of unarmed black men and the resulting civil unrest in 2001, the city's stubborn income inequality, which weighs most heavily on minority residents, and other issues.
Still, the city has made progress, Young said.
"It hasn't always been that way here, but one of the things that makes me so very proud to be a Cincinnatian is that at the end of the day, we get it right."
Jackson’s proposed amendment faces a long road. Only 17 amendments have been passed since the initial 10 found in the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1791, the last of which, dealing with congressional pay raises, was passed in 1992.
Two-thirds of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate must vote to pass an amendment; given the current state of Congress, that’s an exceedingly tall order. Then three-quarters of the nation’s state legislatures must approve the amendment. A constitutional convention convened by two-thirds of the state legislatures can also make amendments, though none of the 27 we have now have been passed this way.