Yesterday on the White House Blog, coverage of the 50th anniversary of the historic events in Selma began with this narrative: "Six hundred people defied the warnings of authorities and attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Alabama, to show the desire of black American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote." Certainly, the courage of those who marched that day cannot be overstated, and the important legislative victory they achieved in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 must never be forgotten. However, this description glosses over a very critical point.
By stating that African Americans sought to "exercise their constitutional right to vote," this narrative misses the irony of the fact that the absence of an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution was the reason that civil rights leaders had to march in the first place. In fact, it took the Voting Rights act to give courts the leverage to enforce individual voting rights of African Americans, because there is no explicit right to vote in our constitution.
No doubt, the right to vote is fundamental. However, its absence as an explicit constitutional right is undeniable. President Obama, who spoke passionately in support of voting rights on Edmund Pettus Bridge at the anniversary, knows this well. As a professor at the University of Chicago, the president-to-be would start out each constitutional law class by pointing out this absence, and highlighting its significance in leaving voting rights vulnerable in the court of law.
With the Voting Rights Act in dire straights after the Supreme Court gutted key provisions in 2013, we must remember why the legislation was needed in the first place and why it needs congressional action today. Legislators, media, and the American public must understand that our right to vote is not currently enshrined in our constitution, and that efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act must be accompanied with focused efforts to establish a constitutional right to vote. Wishing for a constitutional right to vote with the rhetoric we use does not change how the courts see it and protect it (or not protect it), even if employed on the White House blog.
To learn more and get involved, visit FairVote.org or RightToVoteAmendment.com.