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Mark Pocan, Keith Ellison push to add right to vote to U.S. Constitution

Apr 9, 2015
In The News

The Capital Times

By Jessie Opionen

Reps. Mark Pocan and Keith Ellison don't expect their proposal to explicitly grant the right to vote in the U.S. Constitution will be swiftly approved by Congress. But they plan to keep at it until it is.

The Democrats from Madison and Minneapolis spoke at Wisconsin's Capitol building on Thursday, backed by Madison area community leaders including Alds. Maurice Cheeks and Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and Dane County Supervisors Shelia Stubbs and Dorothy Krause. 

The pair of progressive lawmakers introduced the same proposal in 2013 and and said support for the measure has grown significantly since then. 

When Pocan was a state legislator, he sometimes likened the pace of the Legislature to that of a tortoise. If that's so, he said, Congress moves like "an upside-down tortoise" with its legs flailing in the air.

So he and Ellison, with the support of advocates like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, are promoting the proposal around the country, finding support from the ground up through efforts like passing city- and county-level resolutions.

"Nothing happens easily in Washington, certainly not a constitutional amendment," Pocan said. "But this is what we've got to do. Will it pass this Congress? No. Will much pass this Congress? I can tell you right now, no."

Asking about the chances of a resolution like theirs is a fair question, Ellison said, but an uphill battle isn't a reason to cease efforts.

Ellison said it's important to remember that after the violence of Bloody Sunday during the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches of 1965, no one believed the Voting Rights Amendment would be passed right away, yet it was signed into law five months later.

"The truth is that the activists are going to be unrelenting in fighting for justice," Ellison said. "By the way, I believe that there are Republicans who want to enhance democracy. I'm going to believe that, and I'm going to give them a chance to say whether they support democracy or not."

Pocan and Ellison believe such an amendment is necessary to protect voting rights in the face of efforts they say stifle democracy — laws like Voter ID and limitations to early voting.

Explicitly granting the right to vote in the U.S. Constitution would require states to prove enacting such legislation doesn't harm any citizens, rather than requiring a citizen to prove he or she is harmed by it, Pocan said. It would transfer the burden from the citizen to the government.

Given the already implicit rights granted by amendments prohibiting discrimination in the exercise of voting, it's difficult to say how much an amendment like Pocan's and Ellison's would do. But they believe it would present serious challenges to state-level changes like Wisconsin's Voter ID law.

Many state constitutions offer more explicit protections of the right to vote than the U.S. Constitution, including Wisconsin's, which states that "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."

"We each have a right to vote," Pocan said. "As long as you have that great equalizer, we still have a vibrant democracy. But when you do anything to make it harder to vote, you make a direct threat to that democracy."

Citing low voter turnout throughout the country, Ellison suggested voting rights are being suppressed. He likened the state Capitol to a "cathedral to democracy" where "not every prayer is being heard."

Explicitly granting the right to vote would bring about "a renaissance of civic engagement," Ellision said. Their proposal is an "orchestrated effort to enhance democracy" in response to what they believe is an orchestrated effort to suppress the vote, he said.

"The movie 'Selma' reminded us of the horror, trials and tribulations of African-Americans in pursuit of the right to vote," said Greg Jones, president of the Dane County NAACP. "It reminded us that today might not be very significantly different from yesterday when it comes to pursuit of equal opportunity in the voting process."