There is no affirmative and explicit constitutional amendment that guarantees every citizen the right to vote. There are only negative rights, like the right not to be denied the ability to vote because of race or sex. But, nowhere in the constitution does it say every citizen must have the right to vote.
Still, the concept of the right to vote is fundamental to our democracy, and its absence in our constitution is at the root of many issues of voter suppression today. Of course, the framers of our constitution may not have believed that every citizen should have the right to vote.
Our country was founded on a democracy made up of white, land-owning male voices. This only began to really change with the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments introduced following the Civil War and as a part of Reconstruction.
The fourteenth amendment was not gendered and didn’t specify race or religion. Thus, it paved the way for the legal argument of equality in terms of the rights owed to citizens. This operated in tandem with the fifteenth amendment that marked a major milestone in voting rights, guaranteeing that the right to vote would not be influenced by race or ethnicity.
It was from this milestone that the suffrage movement pushed for the extension of this right to women.
In the Supreme Court case of Minor v. Happersett, Virginia Minor argued that because women were citizens, they deserved an equal right to vote, according to the Legal Institute. In this case, the Supreme Court voted against Minor, based on the precedent of states limiting voting rights in other ways, according to the Legal Institute.
This failure reveals the pitfalls of the lack of explicit voting rights in the constitution. Eventually, women did gain the right to not be denied their vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The fourteenth amendment similarly inspired the push for Native American citizenship in order to guarantee them the right to vote. This started with the landmark case of Elk v. Wilkins.
John Elk argued that because he had separated from his Native American tribe, he should be granted citizenship and the right to vote along with it, according to the legal website Justia. However, the court ruled against him classifying him still as a Native American who was not therefore a citizen.
Following major cases like Harrison v. Laveen and Trujillo v. Garley, it wasn’t until 1962 that Native Americans were able to vote in all states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
While most formal barriers were taken down, many informal barriers still remained.
Following the fifteenth amendment, grandfather clauses, literacy tests and poll intimidation still pervaded the South, stopping many African Americans from voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to address these inequalities, making it illegal to discriminate against a person in their ability to exercise their voting rights, according to the United States Department of Justice.
Poll taxes were not included but were later declared unconstitutional by the fourteenth amendment in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections. Finally, South Carolina v. Katzenbach denied a challenge to the Voting Rights Act in regard to pre-authorization for voting laws, resulting in the full implementation of the act, according to the Legal Information Institute.
Tragically, in 2013, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that forced states with a history of discrimination to get pre-authorization to change voting laws, according to The New York Times. It was this ruling that greatly contributed to the rampant voter suppression in the form of informal barriers that exist today.
Particularly in minority communities, there are not enough polling stations and they are simply too far away, resulting in long waiting lines and difficult transportation, according to CNN. Similarly, a lack of funding can result in fewer polling stations with a slower operation, lowering turnout.
The “use it or lose it” policy in Georgia and many other states results in millions of people being purged from voting rolls, according to Fair Fight.
The “exact match” policy in many states makes it so that millions of people without proper ID and matching registration are denied the ability to vote, according to Fair Fight. Unsecured voting machines result in lost and uncounted votes.
Absentee and provisional ballots are made hard to access and sometimes not even present at all. Registration for voting is made unnecessarily difficult, rather than being automatic. Felons in most states, besides Florida, are still unable to vote, according to the Gainesville Sun.
A lack of language access in many rural communities prevents Latinos, Asians and other minorities from voting. Reduced early voting and reduced voting hours target working-class people who won’t have the time off of work to vote. Gerrymandering is another major issue that prevents peoples’ voices from being heard in the electoral system, according to the New York Times.
The remedy to all of the issues of voter access presented throughout history, from African Americans to women to the poor, has always been the Constitution.
It is time in 2020 that we take a cue from the past and try to holistically solve voter suppression once and for all. Federally and at the state level, we can fight to solve individual issues through automatic voter registration, felony eligibility, longer voting periods and so much more. But, by continuing to only chip away at voter suppression, the solution can never be fully realized.
Incessant acts of voter suppression reveal the value of the votes of disenfranchised peoples because nobody would be working this hard to suppress votes that didn’t matter.
A constitutional amendment will be harder to repeal than a federal law, will give the courts higher authority to overturn acts of voter suppression and, most importantly, will send a moral message about the principles of this country.