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Rep. Jackson: Voting system is “separate and unequal”

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

The right to vote should be uniform and guaranteed to every citizen in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., said on April 11.

In this year’s Tresolini Lecture, Jackson contended that the current voting system is close to collapse in the wake of questionable presidential elections in 2000 and 2004. He told the hundreds of attendees that the problems keep reoccurring because of two fundamental issues: the Constitution does not guarantee each citizen a right to vote, and Congress does not have the authority to establish a uniform voting system.

“Voting in the United States is a ‘state right,’ not a ‘citizenship right,’” said Jackson, the son and namesake of the civil rights leader and former presidential candidate. “We keep having these problems because our voting system is built on a constitutional foundation that allows for 50 states, 3,067 counties and 13,000 different election jurisdictions—all separate and unequal.”

To illustrate his point, he noted that ex-felons in Illinois can register and vote, while ex-felons in many Southern states are barred from voting for life.

“There are nearly 5 million ex-felons who have paid their debt to society, but are prohibited from ever voting again, and that includes 1.5 million African-American males,” he said. “But in Maine and Vermont, you can vote even if you’re in jail.”

”Our democratic house cannot stand”

Jackson makes a point during a meeting with students before the lecture.

The six-term congressman from Chicago, who has introduced a right to vote constitutional amendment in three concurrent sessions of Congress, said that only 11 of the 119 nations in the world that elect public officials do not have the right to vote guaranteed in their constitution. And the U.S. is one of those 11, he said.

“The Bible says if you build a house on sand, when it rains, the winds blow and the storms come, it will not stand,” he said. “Our voting system is built on the sand of state’s rights. That’s why, every four years, when the entire nation is focused on a presidential election, and when the rain of politics, the winds of partisanship and the storms of campaigning come, our democratic house cannot stand the unitary test of voting fairness. And it has come close to collapsing.”

Jackson said the American people are gradually losing confidence in the credibility, fairness, effectiveness, and efficiency of the voting system.

“They deserve better,” he said. “We cannot export our current voting system or our form of democracy to other nations because our ‘separate and unequal’ voting system, and our concept of an Electoral College, does not reflect the best of a representative democracy.”

"Provoke, prompt and promote"

Jackson encouraged students to dedicate themselves to public service.

At a press conference preceding his lecture, Jackson admonished Republican leaders for refusing to join his fight, the media for largely ignoring or marginalizing the issue, and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for not spotlighting the issue during the election.

“Of course Senator Kerry could have done more,” Jackson said. “When they were developing the Democratic platform, they could have made the constitutional right to vote a key part of that. We met in Florida to discuss it, and I was the one who reminded the delegates that it was the first time that we went back to where we were all robbed in the 2000 election. But Kerry’s people didn’t want to join us in this fight.”

Brian Pinaire, the associate professor of political science who organizes the Tresolini Lecture, said that Jackson’s talk accomplished the mission of the annual lecture series.

“He did just what we hoped he would do--provoke, prompt, and promote,” Pinaire said. “He showed that he is theoretical enough to imagine the possibilities and practical enough to see the course of action for implementing his ideas and policy proposals. His meeting with students was exciting and his lecture was inspiring. That is just what the Tresolini Lecture is all about."

Prior to delivering the lecture, Jackson met with about 30 students interested in public service and encouraged them to pursue careers that can improve the lives of fellow citizens.

“In my view, there is no higher art, no higher science, no higher calling than to give back to the American people through a career in public service, not politics,” he said. “We need bright people like all of you to be involved in our political system to show that we haven’t lost faith, or the dream, for a better country.”

Jackson wryly noted that he offered that advice to students of a university that rejected his own application for admission more than 20 years ago.

“But, hey,” he said, “no hard feelings.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Photos by John Kish IV

Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2005

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