K. Sabeel Rahman is the president of Demos, a think tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy, and is an associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)America is in the homestretch of our fight to save what’s left of our imperfect democracy. With a little over two months to a crucial election — one that guarantees future fights between a progressive vision and ascendant authoritarianism — we’re out of time to plan for what’s next. We are already living what’s next. And we need to be working hard.
K. Sabeel RahmanThe Movement for Black Lives, one of the largest social movements in American history, has put the spotlight squarely on the epidemic of anti-Black police violence, and the deeper systemic violence wrought by a political system that continues to suppress the votes and voice of Black Americans in particular. Make no mistake: this is our generation’s Reconstruction moment, where we must pick up the baton and continue the fight for the kind of inclusive democracy envisioned not only by civil rights icons like the late Rev. C.T. Vivian and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, but also earlier generations of unsung liberation movement activists dating back at least 150 years.The first place to start is with major legislation aimed at remaking our democratic institutions to secure voting rights, fight voter suppression, limit partisan and racialized gerrymandering and tamp down the role of money in politics. This means a new Congress and administration should immediately pass flagship democracy reform legislation: H.R. 1, the omnibus “For the People” Act to strengthen voting rights and reform how elections operate; H.R. 4, an act restoring the full strength of the 1965 Voting Rights Act after its evisceration by the John Roberts Court in 2013; and the BREATHE Act calling for a plan to close federal prisons and immigration detention centers and reallocating funds from incarceration to social infrastructure, proposed by the Movement for Black Lives. This also means that progressive organizations and think tanks, like Demos, can and will propose robust voting rights policies for our congressional leaders to adopt. But we know all too well the kinds of backlash that is sure to follow. GOP officials, from governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia to operatives following the ruthless example of the late gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller, will continue to develop new tactics for voter suppression and gerrymandering to gain political advantage. A federal judiciary stacked more than ever before with ideological extremists and sycophants of President Donald Trump is likely to continue to look for ways to run interference for these efforts. America's elections are at risk. Here's what the Carter Center is doing about itThese efforts are also likely to be just the latest in a long legacy of efforts to defend White supremacy and dismantle progress toward Black and brown citizenship. Black electoral power and representation hit a high water mark in the Reconstruction years after the Civil War, sparking the violent backlash of terrorism and voter suppression by the KKK and White supremacist groups in the 1870s — which, following a series of supportive Supreme Court rulings that gutted the force of the Reconstruction Amendments banning slavery and attempting to secure civil and voting rights, ensured the rise of Jim Crow. It took the revolutionary courage of Lewis’ generation to restore voting rights in the 1960s — and even that progress was steadily undone by today’s GOP. Read MoreHistory tells us that we need a full court press to secure democracy for our present and our future. That is why we also need to expand our political imagination, to build an inclusive democracy from the ground up by remaking our Constitution to secure democratic rights. One of the origins of our democracy’s current crisis lies in the history of our fundamentally flawed, in some ways undemocratic Constitution, built originally through a compromise designed to ratify slavery and later modified in ways that helped support the political dominance of White supremacy such as through the Electoral College. Its phrasing includes provisions courts have used to permit voter suppression tactics, penal disenfranchisement and gerrymanderingTrail-blazing women look ahead 100 yearsWhat should our Constitution say instead? We can imagine a very different 14th Amendment, one that provides a stronger foundation for racial equity and an inclusive democracy. We need a new Right to Vote Amendment, one that codifies a comprehensive vision for ensuring voting rights. As Demos has outlined in a recent report, a new Right to Vote Amendment should cover five key areas. First, it should protect the franchise, constitutionalizing automatic and same-day voter registration, and barring practices that have the effect of denying or diluting the voting rights of Black and brown communities in particular, and of historically disenfranchised communities more broadly. The kind of alleged machinations that Gov. Kemp deployed in 2018, for example, to block voters of color in particular, would no longer be possible. Second, it should expand the reach of voting rights by finally ending the practice of penal disenfranchisement, ratifying (and protecting from backlash) the push by advocates in states like Florida to restore the voting rights of Americans with felony convictions, while also putting a stop to unfair partisan gerrymandering. Third, an expansive Right to Vote Amendment must rollback the outsized political power of wealthy donors and corporations by ending the wrongheaded constitutional sanction for unlimited campaign contributions following the Supreme Court’s rulings in cases like Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and Citizens United in 2010.Fourth, an inclusive democracy and expansive right to vote requires undoing the systemic defense of White political dominance by ending the Electoral College, ensuring the president and vice president are both directly elected by the people, securing statehood for the District of Columbia, and finally guaranteeing the sovereignty and self-determination of political status to Puerto Rico and the people of other US territories. Get our free weekly newsletter
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Fifth, and finally, any Right to Vote Amendment must provide Congress with broad and affirmative powers (and judicial deference) to enforce these provisions — including by establishing federal election administration standards and constitutionalizing the power to require preclearance procedures of the sort codified by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.As the Covid-19 pandemic ravages our population and our economy continues to collapse, the utter failure of our government to be accountable to Americans — especially to Black and brown communities — is painfully, glaringly and violently obvious. Yet our democracy faces a moment when social movements are advancing a bold new vision for an inclusive America. To help make that vision real, we should consider not just bold legislative change, but also finally remaking our Constitution to make real the aspiration for an inclusive democracy.
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