Why We Should Rethink Voting Rights From the Ground Up.

AuthorAhmed, Amel

It's not enough just to fight discrimination. The government needs to take affirmative steps to make voting easier.

In the wake of the slow-moving but powerful blue tide that ushered in a Democratic-controlled Senate in January, all eyes were on Georgia and the unmatched political skill of Stacey Abrams. Even as ballots in Georgia were still being counted, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to put voting rights on the agenda.

In early March, Democrats in the House passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a sweeping reform bill meant to modernize and democratize our elections. (It has yet to pass the Senate.) This sprawling, nearly 800-page document, covering everything from voter registration and vote-by-mail systems to ballot security and campaign finance reform, has drawn the ire of Republicans, who are claiming legislative overreach.

If it appears that way, it is only because we operate under a faulty understanding of voting rights, one that focuses on the prevention of discrimination rather than on the promotion of an affirmative right to vote. It's time to rethink that. If we do, H.R. 1 will seem more like a good start than a radical measure.

We tend to think of voting rights in terms that political philosophers would characterize as a "negative liberty"--as freedom from discrimination, from obstruction, from intimidation. This is no surprise, given how the franchise has evolved in the United States. There is no constitutional guarantee of the right to vote, and the Bill of Rights is silent on the matter. This, of course, is by design.

The Founders had no intention of extending the franchise beyond the wealthy white men who held power at the time. Initially, voting was restricted to white men who owned property and had sufficient means to pay poll taxes. As increasing wealth and access to property made these restrictions moot, states began removing tax and property qualifications for white men, but made no substantive assurances of an affirmative right to vote. Subsequent acts enfranchised other segments of the population--Black men through the 15th Amendment and later white and Black women through the 19th--but again offered no guarantee of the right to vote, only the right to be free from discrimination in voting.

Even conceived in these limited terms, voting rights were not realized for many Black people, who faced restrictions in the form of Jim Crow laws for decades after the 15th and 19th Amendments were passed. The efforts to fight...

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