Foreword

As the 2020 election looms on the horizon, I find myself frequently thinking of my grandmother. My grandmother was not particularly outspoken or political. She wasn’t a leader in the church, though she attended service every Sunday. She didn’t go to rallies or protest marches, but she voted in every election. She was a woman of deep faith and strong political convictions. Maybe that’s why she never told me to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, she told me that I would grow up to be a preacher or a politician—roles she imagined could change the world for Black and brown people.

So imagine how stunned I was when I told her I was going to be a political organizer and she started to cry. I thought I was living into her prophecy and dream for my life. But there was something about being an electoral organizer that felt fundamentally different to her. She talked about the canvassers that knocked on her door every 4 years with promises of a better life after each election; canvassers who never showed up again once the votes were cast.

What if my grandmother and others in our communities were not turned into metrics of doors knocked, registration cards, and phone calls? What if we, as organizers and as a movement, were not pushed to have transactional, transitory relationships to satisfy goals that have no meaning to the very people we are trying to be with and for? What if instead, our energy and effort were focused on the year-round work of building deeper understanding and relationships? What if our work enabled our communities to know that, through voting, they can hold one lever of power to make their hopes, dreams, and priorities a reality? What would it look like if we didn’t have to concentrate on registering people to vote because the right to vote was already a given?

At Demos, we want to push the U.S. toward a much more inclusive democracy—toward a bold vision that incites and excites folks to fully participate in a thriving and liberated future for all, not a select few. The right to vote is key to actualizing these visions. The right to vote is more than the ability to show up at the polling place and check off a box. It is a value that says we belong, and we have an obligation to a broader community that we call this nation. It is a pronouncement that we have the right to participate and determine our own destiny in this country so that a deeper and more meaningful engagement in our democracy is possible.

We are in a moment when the possibility of a more inclusive democracy is attainable. People are in the streets demanding an end to the structural racism and violence that are the reality of Black and brown people’s lives. Achieving that end will require fundamental changes that are codified in the very documents that are supposed to guide our collective life together as a nation.

We need to rise to this moment by refusing to tinker with an already broken system. By demanding the right to vote, Black and brown people are collectively saying we will not, year after year, knock at the door begging to be let in. We are declaring that everyone belongs and everyone has the right to participate.

In working to build this collective power, we challenge elected officials and candidates to be accountable to that vision and to the “demos”—the people whose lives and experiences are dependent upon these policies. People who, in spite of the tears and disillusionment, still hold the hope that we can change the world if we participate. Through one vehicle of equal participation—a Right-to-Vote Amendment to the Constitution outlined in this report—we take an important step toward a truly inclusive democracy and affirm the lives that have been left out of the conversation. The lives of people like my grandmother. People like us.

—Rodney McKenzie
Executive Vice President, Movement Strategies

 

Executive Summary

The struggle and sacrifice of generations of Black and brown Americans for full inclusion in our democracy have brought our society closer to its democratic ideals. The U.S. Constitution currently contains more protections for the right to vote than when it was enacted. However, this foundational document—in which we enshrine our most fundamental values and most durable structural protections—even today does not offer an affirmative, comprehensive guarantee of the right to vote. As a result, lawmakers across the country have found ways to lock millions of people, disproportionately Black and brown people, out of their voting rights and, in turn, out of full participation in our democracy. Voting rights organizers and advocates continue to engage in creative and courageous efforts to resist voter suppression and other tactics that threaten our democratic ideals, and to make the right to vote real for all eligible Americans. These efforts are complicated, and sometimes thwarted, by the limitations of protections for the right to vote in our laws and, most critically, in our Constitution. 

Download the full Right to Vote policy PDF 

In 2020, Black-led organizing has sparked communities across the country to rise up and demand change. A growing multiracial movement is coming to understand what has been known in Black and brown communities for a long time: our democracy isn’t “broken.” Instead, it’s working exactly as it was designed, denying Black and brown people’s ability to participate in the political process, seeding deep distrust of the very processes and institutions that are meant to ensure our government is “of, by, and for the people,” and, in turn, stripping away the rights and agency of a broad majority of people of all races and ethnicities. This time has also brought a greater appetite for changes long envisioned by grassroots organizations and others closest to the problems of democratic exclusion, changes that would help us fully realize the promise of democracy for the first time.

If we truly want to build inclusive democracy, we must articulate an affirmative vision of an expansive right to vote in the Constitution itself. This paper lays out the kind of robust constitutional protection for the right to vote that we at Demos envision in the form of a new amendment—a Right-to-Vote Amendment for a 21st Century Democracy—that names how the right to vote has been obstructed over the years and offers concrete remedies to these distortions of our democracy.

Such an amendment should:

  1. State the right to vote in the affirmative;
  2. Promote universal voter registration by constitutionalizing automatic voter registration and same day registration;
  3. Protect against practices that have the effect of denying or diluting the voting rights of historically disenfranchised communities;
  4. Abolish the Electoral College and ensure the president and vice president are elected directly by the people;  
  5. Establish statehood for the District of Columbia;
  6. Guarantee sovereignty and self-determination of political status to the people of the U.S. territories;
  7. End the practice of penal disenfranchisement;
  8. Prevent unfair partisan gerrymandering;
  9. Curb the distorting role of big money in politics; and
  10. Give Congress broad enforcement powers, including the ability to establish election administration standards for all elections and require federal preclearance of state voting law changes, so that the right to vote can be made real for all eligible people.

Long-overdue changes to the Constitution alone will not solve all democratic exclusion. However, enshrining in the Constitution a vision for full political participation would go a long way toward remedying a document that was so profoundly flawed at its ratification. It would earn trust in our political process and realize the unfulfilled promises of our democracy. It would ensure that every eligible person, especially the Black and brown people who have long been excluded, has full, inalienable access to the franchise. When our democracy finally works for Black and brown people, it will work for all people.

Download the full Right to Vote policy proposal to read more

The Inclusive Democracy Agenda

This policy proposal is one of the six in Demos’ forthcoming Inclusive Democracy Agenda.

This Agenda advances solutions identified by those closest to the problem of democratic exclusion: communities of color who have been kept from full democratic participation in varying degrees since the founding of the United States.