Voters at the polls in Dayton, Ohio // Credit: Ty Greenlees Dayton Daily News
FairVote, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to broadening voter participation, is seeking to address one of the lasting enigmas of American political tradition, an affirmative constitutional right to vote.
Although voting is a fundamental exercise in democracy, the American tradition when it comes to suffrage has been to amend the constitution such that citizens could not be denied voting rights based on race, gender, wealth, and age with the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th amendments, respectively. The consequences of which have led to less universally applied legal thresholds when it comes to conditions upon one's right to vote.
This has left the nation's 50 states with different standards for who is eligible to vote and who isn't, and is the impetus for "Promote Our Vote," a project of FairVote.
Patricia Hart, project director for Promote Our Vote, argues a constitutional amendment would help encourage voter participation, while defending voter access and expanding suffrage to previously untapped voting communities:
"... [The amendment] would strengthen the claim that all citizens have to exercise their suffrage rights and it would limit the ability of federal, state, and local governments to basically infringe upon those rights... You have about 13,000 voting jurisdictions and they run their election 13,000 different ways and it's all separate and unequal because they have different laws based on the state and municipality. What this constitutional amendment would do is it would set a minimum standard whereby all of these jurisdictions would have to abide by it."
Representatives Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) and Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) introduced House Joint Resolution 44 in May. HJ Res 44 (the first step for a next constitutional amendment) is currently in the House Subcommittee on Constitution and Civil Justice.
In addition, Hart and the Promote Our Vote team are mobilizing grassroots voters to change how their communities participate in elections. After officially launching the project in January, 6 localized task forces have been assembled to build support for and pass resolutions in favor of a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.
Although it takes two-thirds of both houses to introduce and three quarters of the states to ratify a new amendment, Hart says the task forces have been critical 'conversation starters.' These have helped raise awareness for a national amendment and improve participation locally."Once the conversation started, people really wanted to understand how they could improve the laws in their cities to include more voters," Hart continued. "So Takoma Park actually lowered their voting age in municipal elections to 16, and it was the first city to do so. When we first heard about we were surprised... but then we did some more research and we found out that the earlier you vote the more likely you are to become a habitual voter..."
Voting under 18 has yet to gain traction outside of Takoma Park, Maryland, but the data may be on Promote Our Vote's side:
"No research has shown that 16 and 17 year olds are neurologically less capable of grasping an issue or understanding an issue. I think a lot of times we write them off when they're actually a lot more capable of understanding the issues that are important to them then other people who are older. What's really interesting is we've seen a huge overflow of civic engagement from high schools in Takoma Park where the voting law was made."
In addition to engaging new voting communities, the Promote Our Vote project is looking at other barriers potential voters face to participating. Tools like pre-registration in states like Florida, Hawaii, and Rhode Island have helped foster a culture of civic participation.
"The number one reason people don’t vote is because they aren’t registered," Hart said.
Policies like repealing voter id requirements have become controversial in states like North Carolina and Ohio. Likewise, proponents argue that policies like same day registration and lax voter identification laws are ripe for voter fraud.
Hart sees things differently:
"Wanting to safeguard our elections is a completely legitimate idea, but I don't think there's a huge amount of evidence saying that we have widespread voter fraud... If we did have voter id nationwide then the government would need to take on the burden of making sure that every citizen has that ID."
Promote Our Vote has been active for only 9 months and has already made headway improving civic engagement, providing logistical and educational support for their grass roots task force members.