Conferees defend all citizens’ voting rights

Ellison co-authors Right to Vote amendment to U.S. Constitution
Attendees of the April 9 Right to Vote Amendment forum
Attendees at the Right to Vote amendment forum April 9

The struggle for democracy by Blacks for most of this country’s history has included the right to vote, a right that according to some is still being challenged. “Democracy is under siege,” proclaims U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). He and U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) held forums in North Minneapolis and Madison, Wisconsin on their constitutional Right to Vote Amendment.

H.J. Res. 25 states, “Every citizen of the United States who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election… Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article…”

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison

“There is no expressed guarantee of an individual’s right to vote” in the U.S. Constitution, Ellison told the April 9 audience at Emerge Career and Technology Center in North Minneapolis. Added Pocan, “Most Americans consider voting a basic right, but some states are chipping away at voting rights and making it harder for citizens to cast their ballots.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 83 “restrictive bills” were introduced last year in 29 states, and 30 states now have voter ID laws, while 12 states and the District of Columbia have passed bills that expand voting access.

Voter suppression laws mainly affect low-income people, Blacks and other people of color, seniors and college students — “those who don’t vote Republican,” noted Pocan.

If Minnesota voters had approved it, the 2012 proposed Voter ID amendment “would have been a disaster,” noted Secretary of State Steve Simon.

“Keith’s idea is a good idea,” said former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale on the Pocan-Ellison Amendment in a brief MSR interview last week. However, the lack of bipartisanship in Washington is problematic. “I talk quite a bit about the Lincoln Republicans who helped us in 1965. I’d like someone to name [the] Lincoln Republicans now. I don’t see it [today] in the Senate.”

Mondale was in town last week and spoke at the April 10 all-day conference at the U of M Humphrey School of Public Affairs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson. He told the audience that he then was a first-term U.S. Senator and a bi-partisan effort, including support from “Lincoln Republicans,” got it passed.

A June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared unconstitutional Section 4(b) of the Act, which require that certain states and local governments get federal preclearance before making any changes to their voting laws or practices because of past discrimination practices.

“This repeal of the preclearance [provision] by the Court was outrageous,” Mondale told the MSR. “If the Congress thought unanimously that this was a problem that needed to be dealt with, what right [does] a court have to come back and say, ‘We don’t think so.’ They are not a congress, they are a court that deals with the law. This really hurts us.”

Preclearance must be restored in order to keep some states from passing “Jim Crow-type” voting laws, he stressed. “I think one of the things we ought to be working on is to reaffirm a national, bipartisan coalition to restore civil rights in America.”

Keith Mayes
Keith Mayes

Black people too often have to “prove our worthiness as U.S. citizens,” said University of Minnesota African American and African Studies Associate Professor Keith Mayes, who argued at last week’s conference that the Voting Rights Act was “a failure” because it didn’t specifically do away with such long-standing impediments as poll taxes that kept not only Blacks, but also poor Whites from voting.

“When we see these great acts in our community purported to do what they are supposed to do, I think the backlash in the last decade against some of those rights has created a sense of apathy among young Black people,” stated the professor. “They look at the Civil Rights Movement as being a movement that was supposed to give us the rights that were long overdue… What now do we have to do as a nation and a country, and certainly as a community to make our rights real and palatable?”

“Some people would say nothing has changed. I say everything has changed and the struggle continues,” said Ellison, who later told the conference, “We cannot tolerate or accept those who want to suppress the vote.”

Ellison complained that a low voter turnout such as took place during last fall’s midterm elections, where just 36 percent of eligible voters nationwide cast ballots, the lowest since 33.9 percent in 1942, cannot continue. The biggest threat to democracy, he pointed out, “is not participating.”

“We need a renaissance of civic engagement…to make voter turnout a fundamental core value,” said the congressman.

“A lot of our Black people aren’t educated on what it means to vote,” said Octancia Adams of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), who attended last week’s North Minneapolis forum. She told the MSR afterwards that she loves attending such forums “because you get the information from the top” such as from the two congressmen and Simon.

“We need to educate our people more,” Adams said, especially young people in her age group. “A lot of people don’t know what their voting rights are.”

Mayes reiterated that Minnesotans shouldn’t get comfortable just because the Voter ID proposal was voted down a couple of years ago. Being a U.S. citizen, not having an ID, should be the only qualification to vote, he pointed out.

“When [Voter ID supporters] make a move, it’s not just in one state but in 10 states,” warned the professor. “They haven’t given up on Minnesota. They are going to energize, recalculate, and try to do it again, whether it’s next year or [in] a couple of years. People need to see that and know that.”

Asked about the prospects for his and Ellison’s amendment being considered this session, Rep. Pocan told the MSR, “Passing any legislation in Congress right now is difficult. Nothing is easy, especially a constitutional amendment getting through Congress.”

Pocan said a grassroots effort is needed: “We got the NAACP and other major organizations… There has been very little resistance to it, and that’s good. We need to keep building support.”

Finally, Ellison said he liked the energy at the two forums. “It means that Americans in both states are thirsty for democracy — full room, everybody’s excited. A lot of good ideas came out. I was happy about the outcome of the whole thing.”

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