Spell out the right to vote

Despite what we might think about the most fundamental act of democratic participation, our right to vote is not explicitly defined or guaranteed in the Constitution. All it says on the matter is that certain characteristics cannot be used as justification for denying voting rights. For example, the 19th Amendment expanded the franchise to women by saying the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged “on account of sex.” But the Constitution never affirms the right in the first place.

The right to vote has instead been extended and defended through case law and the active work of organizers, policy makers, and legal advocates. This is why we often are on tenterhooks as we await the decision of judges in contentious court cases that determine who can vote and when and how. Even the right for all people of eligible voting age to vote sits in constant tension with our willingness — or lack thereof — to broaden our moral imagination to extend this right to as many citizens as possible.

But what if people could find in the Constitution text that specified the fundamental right to vote? How much stronger would the footing be for defenders of democracy? Consider that according to the Brennan Center for Justice, in 2021 alone “at least 61 bills with restrictive provisions are moving through 18 state legislatures.” A firm constitutional guarantee could avert the potency and viability of these restrictions because states would have to ensure that only reasonable limits could be imposed.

An affirmative statement that citizens of the country are allowed to vote would reduce eligibility disparities between states. No longer would we wade into tricky waters when debating whether incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people should be able to vote. Affirming the right to vote in the Constitution would flip things around: States would be forced to enable this right rather than permitted to stand in the way of it.

Caleb Gayle is a visiting scholar at the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.