When aspiring Americans take the citizenship test, they are asked, “What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?” The correct answer? The right to vote. That is because the right to vote is not just important, it is fundamental — it represents nothing less than the right that preserves all the other liberties Americans hold dear.
So if you assume that the right to vote is guaranteed in this country, your assumption would be understandable. But it would, in fact, be incorrect. While the right to vote is inherent throughout the Constitution, and there are amendments prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, and age, nothing in our founding document explicitly guarantees our right to vote in every election. As hard as this is to believe, this fact was confirmed by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore.
That is why this month, I was honored to be joined by my friends from the Urban League of Greater Madison, Latino Children and Families Council, the 100 Black Men of Madison, and the Social Justice Center, as I introduced a Right to Vote Amendment to amend the Constitution to provide all Americans the affirmative right to vote.
Why is this important? Because according to the Brennan Center for Justice, this year alone more than 80 restrictive voting bills have been introduced in over 30 states, from New York to Arizona. And without a constitutional provision, state legislatures have passed, and courts have upheld, restrictive voting laws targeting minority, low-income, student and elderly communities.
These laws have instituted burdensome registration requirements and reduced early voting opportunities, which are critical for low-income Americans who cannot take off work on Election Day. African Americans and Latinos, in particular, have utilized early voting days in high numbers. The most popular current form of voter suppression though is voter ID laws, which require voters to display very specific forms of photo IDs that often take both excessive amounts of time and money to acquire.
Unfortunately, this plague of restrictive voting efforts also reaches our home state of Wisconsin. In 2011, the State Assembly passed legislation putting heavy burdens on the rights of Wisconsinites to vote. Not only did this law require a photo ID at the polls, it also took steps to disenfranchise senior citizens and college students, reduced registration opportunities, and restricted the ability of residents to receive absentee ballots.
But Wisconsin possesses something many other states do not possess — a guaranteed right to vote. Article III, Section 1, of the Wisconsin Constitution specifically states: “Every United States citizen age 18 or older who is a resident of an election district in this state is a qualified elector of that district.” Have no doubt — this one sentence has made a huge difference for Wisconsinites. In two separate cases challenging the Wisconsin Voter ID law, the Wisconsin Circuit Courts have ruled that these restrictive, burdensome voting laws are unconstitutional because, as the decision in NAACP of Milwaukee v. Walker stated, “the Wisconsin Constitution expressly guarantees the right to vote.”
While we are fortunate in Wisconsin, not all states possess a guaranteed right to vote, leaving little recourse for residents when a restrictive voting bill is signed into law. Our suffrage heroes, from Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King, Jr., fought too hard and too long to see the progress they achieved rolled back by state legislatures acting with partisan motives.
Instead, we must reaffirm our founding principle that our country is at its strongest when everyone participates. Now more than ever, we need to be protecting our right to vote—not restricting it.
My amendment, which I wrote along with my colleague Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is as simple as it is necessary: every American citizen possesses the fundamental right to vote in any public election where they reside, and Congress has the power to protect this right. No more will Americans have to prove that their right to vote has been infringed. Instead, the burden of proof will be left to the states to demonstrate that any efforts they take will not deny nor abridge our fundamental right to vote.
We must remember the right to vote is not a Democratic right, it is not a Republican right, and it is not a right just for the well-off. It is an AMERICAN right, and it is fundamental to a government designed for the people, by the people. As the world’s leading democracy, the United States must demand a guaranteed, affirmative right to vote for all.