· Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote in the U.S. House and Senate and ratification requires approval by three-fourths of state legislatures.
· The House of Representatives passed the 15th Amendment on February 25, 1869 by a vote of 144 to 44.
· The Senate passed the 15th Amendment on February 26, 1869 by a vote of 39 to 13.
· The 15th Amendment was ratified by the states in just 342 days (11 months and 8 days) on February 3, 1870 when the 28th state approved the amendment.
· U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish issued a proclamation certifying the ratification of the 15th Amendment by the states on March 30, 1870.
This is what the 15th amendment says:
1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The U.S. “voting system” is based on the “structure” of states rights and local control – the result of the 10th Amendment - the same amendment and structure that controlled slavery (i.e., the combination of private ownership and states rights). The mistake made in 1870 when the 15th Amendment was ratified was this: we left the implementation of our voting rights in the hands of the former slaveholders who controlled the states and ran the local voting jurisdictions.
The 15th Amendment only outlawed the denial of the right to vote to African American men based on racial discrimination. It did not grant every American the fundamental individual right to vote.
So what did the former slaveholders do? They devised schemes to deny the right to vote to African American men based on criteria other than race but that had the effect of denying the right to vote to African American men – e.g., poll taxes, voting on Tuesday when landowners were free but Black workers were in the fields, record keeping, timing of registration in relation to elections, passing “Black Laws” that led to felony disenfranchisement focusing on crimes thought to be committed by Blacks, complex residency requirements and literacy tests (i.e., how many bubbles in a bar of soap; recite the entire Constitution; name all the counties in your state, etc.). In addition, groups such as the KKK burned Black homes, churches and schools and resorted to lynching and murder to discourage African American voting.
· In the meantime, in 1913 the nation ratified a 17th Amendment establishing the direct election of U.S. Senators by popular vote;
· In 1920, the nation ratified the 19th Amendment outlawing discrimination in voting on the basis of sex;
· And in 1951 it ratified the 22nd Amendment limiting the number of terms a President could serve to two.
Returning to the struggle for the right to vote for African Americans, it was these non-racial schemes that were effective in denying Blacks the right to vote that was being attacked by marchers in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
Between 1961 and 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had led a voter registration drive in Selma, the seat of Dallas County, Alabama, a small town with a record of pervasive resistance to Blacks voting. When SNCC’s efforts were frustrated by stiff opposition from Sheriff Jim Clark and county law enforcement officials, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were persuaded by local activists to make Selma’s intransigence to black voting a national concern. SCLC hoped the momentum of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – signed into law on July 2, 1964 - would help to generate new legislation for federal protection of voting rights.
During January and February Dr. King and SCLC led a series of demonstrations to the Dallas County Courthouse trying to register Black voters. It was during one of these demonstrations that Sheriff Jim Clark punched Rev. C. T. Vivian in the face. On February 18, in Marion, Alabama a peaceful protest march was met by Alabama state troopers who beat the protesters after streetlights suddenly went out. A young protester, Jimmie Lee Jackson, while attempting to protect his mother and grandfather from the police, was shot in the stomach by an Alabama State Highway Patrolman. He died eight days later from his injuries.
In response to the difficulty of voting in Selma - and as a direct response to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson - SCLC’s Director of Direct Action, the Rev. James Bevel, called for and organized a march from Selma-to- Montgomery. As a result on March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday occurred as SCLC, SNCC, John Lewis and other marchers tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on their way to Montgomery, but they were beaten badly by Alabama State troopers and local police.
On March 21 the 54-mile march from Selma-to-Montgomery was launched under federal protection, with 25,000 coming together at the Capitol on March 25. The beatings of Bloody Sunday had been televised around the nation and world, setting the political climate for legislation.
Previous civil rights and voting rights legislation had been passed in 1870 and 1875. However, in 1883 the Supreme Court declared the 1875 law unconstitutional, ruling that congressional power did not extend to cases of private discrimination – i.e., the same position Sen. Rand Paul took on the Rachel Maddow Show with respect to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The politics and the Court’s ideology at the time did not permit laws that were effective in combating racism to be declared constitutional. Today our politics and the ideology of John Roberts’ Supreme Court are moving in that same direction.
In Selma, the eyes of the marchers were always looking forward to federal legislation to protect their voting rights, which was eventually signed into law on August 6, 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination in voting. The Voting Rights Act was the enabling legislation in fulfillment of the 15th Amendment 95 years after it had been ratified in 1870. The Selma Movement’s goal was met and fulfilled!
Even after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed:
· Women still couldn’t serve on juries
· 18-year-olds could fight in Vietnam, but couldn’t vote
· Students couldn’t vote on campus
· And if you didn’t speak English, bilingual ballots weren’t available and, therefore, you couldn’t vote
We made a second mistake with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. We again left the “structure” of our “voting system” in place – i.e., states rights and local control. In 1870 we left the former slaveholders in charge of our voting rights. In 1965 we left the former segregationists in charge of our voting rights and they did and are still doing (joined by others opposed to democracy) the same thing to our voting rights that the former slaveholders did. They are devising new “non-racial” schemes to politically disenfranchise us and to suppress our vote – e.g., at-large elections, gerrymandering voting districts through stacking and packing districts, misusing photo-ID requirements by accepting gun IDs while denying student IDs, limiting early voting, eliminating evening voting, doing away with Souls-to-the-Polls Sunday voting and same-day on-site voter registration, moving polling places to make it more difficult to vote, providing too few machines in polling places resulting in long lines, sometimes forcing voters to stand in the cold or in the rain.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow documents how our judicial system is politically disenfranchising voters. 5.85 million ex-felons are currently politically disenfranchised and not allowed to vote, with another 2.3 million who are currently incarcerated denied the right to vote – a total of 8.15 million disenfranchised voters of which the Black, Brown and poor are disproportionately represented. The U.S. is 5% of the world’s population but incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. Because of felony laws, 1 of every 13 African Americans is unable to vote. In Alabama, if you are in prison, or out on probation or parole, you cannot vote. In the U.S., only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote. In South Africa, every citizen is allowed to vote whether in or out of prison.
In Selma we had our eyes set on August 6, 1965. But now we need to remember and keep a focus and our eyes set on another date - June 25, 2013. That was the date the John Roberts’ Supreme Court decided the Shelby v. Holder case. (Remember, I told you about the current political climate and the John Roberts Court).
On August 6, 1965 the Voting Rights Act was signed into law and on June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court gutted it with Shelby. Shelby still allows us to use parts of the Voting Rights Act, but it takes more time, costs more money and voter discrimination is more difficult to prove in court following Shelby.
In Shelby the Court let us keep the car but it took away the key – Section 4. Section 4 was the key, the formula that triggered Section 5, the pre-clearance provision. Section 5 required any covered jurisdiction to pre-clear any changes in their voting system with the Justice Department or the DC Federal District Court so it could be determined in advance if the changes had a racially discriminatory effect.
A small bipartisan group of legislators in the 113th Congress tried to “fix” the Shelby decision with legislation. Their legislation was not even given a sub-committee hearing, much less a vote. But even if it had become law it would have dramatically compromised the effectiveness of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And the new Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the Republican-controlled 114th Congress, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, said he sees no need for a fix to the Voting Rights Act. A fix is dead in the 114th Congress.
It’s only because we have a states rights and local control voting system that 22 states have changed their voting laws since 2010 to make it more difficult for some voters to vote – i.e., minorities, the young, the old, basic workers, women, the poor and the disabled. And now with both chambers in 31 state legislatures and 30 governorships controlled by Republicans we can expect more discriminatory changes to those state’s voting laws leading into the 2016 presidential race that will make it more difficult for certain voters to vote.
The enemies of democracy just continue to play fast and loose with our right to vote. We fix one problem and they create another. We fix that problem and they come up with another devious scheme. What should we do? What can we do? What is the alternative? What’s the way out of this dilemma? How do we fix our voting system so we don’t have to keep combating these “vote tricksters” every few years?
The U.S. has 50 states (plus DC), 3.143 counties and 13,000 election jurisdictions that administer 186,000 precincts - all separate and unequal. But if “separate and unequal” was unacceptable for education in Brown in 1954 it’s equally unacceptable for voting in 2015. It’s ridiculous and ironic that we have the fundamental individual right to a gun in our Constitution but not the fundamental individual right to vote in our Constitution. We need to add a right to vote amendment to the Constitution! A right to vote amendment would fulfill the intent of the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments – the 26th was added in 1971 and outlawed discrimination in voting on the basis of age.
In a democracy, the right to vote is a moral imperative, the most fundamental legal right and is protective of all other rights. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) he said, “The right to vote is the basic right, without which all others are meaningless.” Such a fundamental right should be explicitly guaranteed to all Americans in the U.S. Constitution.
Prior to becoming President of the United States, Professor Barack Obama, as a teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, began each of his constitutional law classes sharing with his students the surprising fact that an “explicit federal individual right to vote” is not in the U.S. Constitution.
Of the 119 nations that elect their public officials using some form of democratic elections, 108 have the right to vote in their constitution, but the United States is one of the 11 nations - including Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Singapore and the United Kingdom - that does not explicitly contain a citizen's right to vote in its constitution.
A “right-to-vote” constitutional amendment is: (a) non-partisan – not Democratic, Republican or independent; (b) non-ideological – not liberal or conservative; (c) non-programmatic – it doesn’t require one to support or oppose any particular policy or legislative programs(s) in order to fulfill the amendment; and (d) non-special interest – it’s application is not limited to minorities, women, labor, businesspersons, lesbians and gays or any other special interest group. It applies to and benefits all Americans!
We need to congratulate Congressmen Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Keith Ellison of Minnesota who have introduced House Joint Resolution 25 (H.J. Res. 25) in the 114th Congress. It would add a right to vote amendment to the U.S. Constitution and it would do two things: (1) give every American the fundamental individual right to vote; and (2) give Congress the authority to create a unified national voting system with common sense minimum standards.
We need to keep hope alive, but not just in the abstract. Now we can keep hope alive concretely by supporting and fighting for H.J. Res. 25. Just like the Selma marchers had their eyes on legislation that became a reality on August 6, 1965; and just like the anti-democratic forces had their eyes on June 25, 2013 with Shelby; we must educate, dramatize and march anew with our eyes fixed on a voting rights prize for all Americans – adding a right to vote amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
We need to keep hope alive by supporting House Joint Resolution 25!
Keep hope alive – H.J. Res. 25!
Keep hope alive – H.J. Res. 25!