By Khalil Abdullah, New America Media
The struggle over state-sponsored legislation limiting or redefining how and when citizens can vote has generated contentious debate. Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, a non-partisan organization dedicated to civil rights and racial justice, has been a vocal opponent of state photo-ID laws and other restrictive measures. In an interview with New America Media's Khalil Abdullah, Browne Dianis explains why she has concluded a new amendment on the right to vote to the U.S. Constitution is necessary.
New America Media: Why do you feel a new Constitutional amendment on voting is needed, given there are a number of amendments that already guarantee voter protection?
Judith Browne Dianis: We don't have explicit, affirmative language, as does the South African Constitution, for example, that every citizen who is over the age of 18 years old has the right to vote. Constitutions in most of the world's democracies have that language; ours does not. The U.S. Constitution never explicitly or affirmatively ensures the right to vote, though it has many clauses and amendments detailing ways people cannot be denied the right to vote. For example, you cannot preclude voting rights on the basis of race or gender. Voting cannot be predicated on paying a poll tax. In other words, once having granted the right to vote, those amendments say governments may not take it away on the grounds of certain discriminatory criteria.
NAM: Why aren't current state laws sufficient to guarantee voting rights?
Browne Dianis: Voting in the United States is currently based on state and local law but largely, as a result, we have close to 13,000 separate sets of rules and regulations across the country about who can vote and how. State and local governments can -- and do -- disenfranchise individuals and groups of citizens. Many ways of denying voting rights are entirely legal under the existing but limited federal laws that touch on voting. The current voting system is separate, unequal and confusing.
NAM: Among the raft of state legislation seeking to redefine how and when Americans can vote, new photo ID laws, arguably have received the most media and public attention. Sponsors explain they are addressing voter fraud. Is there merit in that claim?
Browne Dianis: The myth of voter fraud is not supported by the data that show that those instances are rare. Besides, voter photo ID laws focus on voter impersonation, which is already illegal. Fines and penalties currently on the books can deal with those cases. But take a broader look at what’s happening. All of these [state] laws are designed to make voting inaccessible, not only the voter photo ID laws, but attempts to purge voters by using inaccurate citizenship data bases, roll-back and cut-backs to early voting; and laws that make it harder to conduct voter registration campaigns. We have states, like Florida, that have limited early voting by reducing the number of days available. The inevitable result will be a lower overall turnout because of fewer opportunities to vote, particularly for employed individuals. These are not the methods one would use to expand democratic participation.
NAM: Who would want to restrict an expansion of democracy and why?
Browne Dianis: At the moment, this is driven by partisan politics. Republican legislatures, primarily, have enacted the new provisions using model legislation developed with assistance of the American Legislative Exchange Council. The money to support these initiatives has come from deep-pocket sources, like the Koch brothers. These laws, as even stated by some of their proponents, are intended to purge African-American, Latino, and young voters -- many of whom vote as Democrats -- from the rolls before November's election. I'd like to note that the elderly and those with disabilities are also disproportionately affected, often regardless of political affiliation. A constitutional amendment would level the playing field so that the right to vote would not be subject to the whim of any political party.
NAM: Are you saying there's no financial counterweight to support voting rights advocates?
Browne Dianis: Not at this point, and the need for monetary support is greater than it has been in the recent past. Proponents of expanding access to the ballot in the United States are receiving less monetary support than in the 2000 election. Organizations that are on the ground and actively engaged in protecting voters' rights are stretched thin.
NAM: Setting financing aside, why not rely on the federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve voting rights disputes?
Browne Dianis: Over the last several years, the Supreme Court has been moving slowly but surely farther and farther away from treating the right to vote as a fundamental right that is owed the highest degree of respect and protection. It has also grown less deferential to Congress' ability to protect voting rights. The Court is threatening to use a stricter standard to such congressional acts than has been used in the past in order to determine whether or not those acts exceed congressional authority.
NAM: So how would this new amendment read and what are its key elements?
Browne Dianis: We need more research on the exact language, but we retained a firm to conduct focus groups across the country with diverse participants regarding the right to vote and related issues. Here are a few of the "must-haves" we heard from a majority of participants, things that would sway them to support a constitutional right to vote: all citizens over the age of 18 can vote easily or conveniently; the voting rules are the same all over the country so it is no harder to vote in state A than it is in state B; and persons with felony convictions -- but who have served their time -- can vote. There also was a demand for modern, accurate, verifiable voting machines.
We are also reviewing the state constitutions that more explicitly and affirmatively guarantee the right to vote than does the U.S. Constitution and there have been other voices calling for this amendment. Rep. Jesse Jackson [D-Ill.] has proposed an amendment, H.R. 28, as a start.
NAM: To get a Constitutional amendment proposed requires two-thirds of the state legislatures or two-thirds of Congress to approve. Ratification for it to become part of the Constitution has even a higher threshold. You would have to go through the same state legislatures or Congresspersons representing the very states that are passing restrictive voting laws. How realistic is it that a right to vote amendment could succeed?
Browne Dianis: It is possible, but it will take a national movement. It will be up to the American people to fight for the right to vote. They will have to decide whether their democracy is worth fighting for.
NAM: Until that movement arises, what keeps you up at night? What are your most urgent concerns only a month out from the election?
Browne Dianis: I wonder, what's the next barrier? Even when legal victories are secured, opponents of expanding the voting franchise continue to devise ways to limit it. Right now, we are concerned about robo-calls and other techniques used to disseminate misinformation about voting registration and precinct information, and we have to prepare for voter intimidation by so-called poll watchers. As I said, if the American people really believe that the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, they’re going to have to fight for it.
(Photo of a 2005 Atlanta rally calling for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act by D. Ryan via The Leadership Conference website.)