Is This Blog’s Proposed New Federal Voting Rights Act Constitutional?

A prior post proposed a new federal voting rights act that would (a) make every U.S. citizen (including children and felons) eligible to vote; (b) require every citizen to vote; (c) forbid any racial discrimination in voting; and (d) simplify voting laws and procedure. Left unadressed was the constitutionality of such a statute.

Relevant Constitutional Law

Such a constitutional analysis is suggested in a recent article by Jesse Wegman, an experienced lawyer and journalist and a member of the New York Times’ Editorial Board, and this post draws from his article.

We start with the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause (Article I, Section 4). It provides: ” The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.”

According to the U.S. Supreme Court in various cases, the words “Times, Places and Manner” in this Clause are “comprehensive words,” which “embrace authority to provide a comprehensive code for congressional elections.” The Clause functions as “a default provision; it invests the States with responsibility for the mechanics of congressional elections, but only as far as Congress declines to pre-empt state legislative choices.” Indeed, the congressional power under the Clause “is paramount and may be exercised at any time, and to any extent which it deems expedient; and so far as it is exercised, and no further, the regulations effected supersede those of the State which are inconsistent therewith.”

On the other hand, the Supreme Court has held in various cases, the Clause does not empower Congress to regulate who may vote in congressional elections. Instead, Article I, section 2(1) of the Constitution states, “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.” (Emphasis added.) The same criteria for senatorial elections are set forth in the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution.

These constitutional provisions were the bases for the Supreme Court’s decision, 7 to 2, on June 17, 2013, in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona to invalidate an Arizona statute that required voter-registration officials to reject any application for registration that did not include documentary evidence of U.S. citizenship even though a Federal Form for such registration under the National Voter Registration Act that states are required to “accept and use” does not require such documentary evidence.

The opinion for the Court was written by Justice Antonin Scalia and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the opinion in part and filed his own concurring opinion. [1]  It was from Justice Scalia’s opinion that the foregoing summary of prior Supreme Court precedents was drawn.[2]

Application of the Constitutional Law to the Proposed Federal Voting Rights Act

Clearly the proposed statute’s making every U.S. citizen, including children and felons, eligible to vote would be unconstitutional. It could be rescued on the federal level only by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Individual states, however, could enact such laws.

The same conclusion would probably also apply to the proposal that every U.S. citizen be required to vote.

However, the various suggestions in the prior post for simplifying voting laws and procedure should be constitutional as would the ban on racial discrimination in voting.

Furthermore, I join Mr. Wegman in concluding that the Elections Clause could be the constitutional basis for “[s]trong federal laws . . . [to] help ensure voting fairness to all voters, especially when a state law appears neutral but has serious partisan or racially discriminatory effects. For instance, a state’s voter ID law might put up hurdles for poor or young voters, who may be disproportionately minority and Democratic, or for elderly voters, who lean Republican.” In addition, even though the Elections Clause “allows Congress to set rules only for federal elections, . . . those laws almost always guide state election practices.”


[1] Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito filed dissenting opinions in Arizona v. Holder.

[2] Only eight days later, Justice Scalia was in the majority in Shelby County v. Holder that, 5 to 4, invalidated an important provision of the federal Voting Rights Act. This case has been discussed in a prior post while another post summarized the criticism of that decision by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

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2 Responses to “Is This Blog’s Proposed New Federal Voting Rights Act Constitutional?”

  1. Jim Rush Says:

    The Articles quoted above date from the Constitution as ratified 1788, but since 1865 the people expect the national government to ensure equality of treatment and maximum opportunity to vote! For example, the last section of the 13, 14, 15, 19 (womens sufferage), the 18-year old vote, abolition of poll taxes state, “Congress shall have the power to enact appropriate legislation to enforce …” Note, unlike the 1st Amendment, these amendments (equal force and power to the words in 1788!) empower Congress to act and give it descretion to make “appropriate” laws!

    So, when we discuss this issue, let’s include the Constitution as written today, not the outdated 1788 precepts!

  2. Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Papillion NE Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your next post thanks once again.

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