Nothing is more essential in a democratic government than the right to vote. As the Supreme Court explained more than a century ago, the right to cast a ballot is “preservative of all rights.” And yet the Constitution contains no explicit right to vote, although it does contain certain limited protections for this right.
Soon, however, citizens in Illinois could enshrine sweeping protections for the right to vote into their state constitution. In November, voters will consider a ballot initiative on a Right to Vote Amendment. If passed, the following amendment would be added to Article III of the Illinois Constitution:
No person shall be denied the right to register to vote or to cast a ballot in an election based on race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or income.
The impetus for this amendment is voter suppression in states across the nation. Over the past three-and-a-half years, in states ranging from red (Kansas) to blue (Pennsylvania) to purple (Florida), from the south (Texas) to the midwest (Wisconsin), Republican lawmakers have passed a plethora of new voter suppression measures. These include strict new voter identification requirements, shortening early voting, restrictions on groups that help people register to vote, and other tactics.
The initiative will face Illinois voters after being approved by large bipartisan majorities in both Illinois legislative chambers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an enshrined right to vote is so popular with legislators that just five state representatives — all Republicans — and no state senators opposed the measure. The amendment will become law if three-fifths of Illinois voters who vote on the initiative — or a majority of overall voters — approve the measure.
In many ways, the current absence of an explicit constitutional right to vote is what has allowed these voter suppression measures to take hold in many states, particularly after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was gutted by the Supreme Court last year. But that dynamic could change next month in Illinois.
Indeed, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D), who is behind the push for new voter protections, is clear that the aim is to prevent future attempts at voter suppression in Illinois. “Some might say, ‘Well, today in Illinois, you don’t need this. Voter suppression wouldn’t happen in Illinois,’ Madigan declared. “We don’t know that. We don’t know what the future holds. What we do know is we can constitutionalize the protection of the right to vote.”
Another sponsor, State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D), was even more direct: “It is definitely, definitely intended to discourage voter ID laws,” Raoul argued. “If you cast a vote for this, you are casting a vote against voter ID laws.”
If the amendment is enacted in Illinois, it could soon become a blueprint for other states looking to prevent future voter suppression attempts. Though the pace has slowed considerably since 2011 and 2012, a handful of states, including Montana and Missouri, are currently considering suppression measures.
Illinois State Rep. David Reis (R) dismissed the need for a constitutional amendment, calling it a solution “in search of a problem.” But Reis is either ignoring the past few years of conservative maneuvering even in bordering states like Wisconsin and Missouri, or he hasn’t met, read about, or heard of any Republican lawmakers in Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona, Montana, or the United States Congress.
Still, many of Reis’s fellow GOP lawmakers support the measure, including State Sen. Matt Murphy (R). “We can send a message and make clear with this bill right here that it doesn’t matter what your surname is, if you have earned that right to vote, you will not be impeded in any way in exercising it,” Murphy said.