This semester, the Buckley Program held a college essay contest with the topic: If you could propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, what would it be? The following essay by Jeffrey Hendricks, a senior in Silliman College, won 1st place.
Political observers understand the difficulty of amending the U.S. Constitution. A two-thirds majority of both congressional houses must propose the amendment, or two-thirds of the states must request a convention. If the proposed amendment wins these supermajorities, three-quarters of the states must ratify the amendment. These high thresholds guarantee the necessity of bipartisan support. In the era of 50 states, the 89th Congress (January 1965 – January 1967) presented the only unified government with a House of 290 or more members of one party and a Senate with 67 or more members of the same party. 290 is two-thirds of 435; 67 is the first whole number larger than two-thirds of 100. Despite this brief instance of unified supermajority government, Democrats fell six states short of the necessary 38 state legislatures needed to ratify a constitutional amendment in 1965. The total number of legislatures under Democratic control fell to 24 in 1967. Though lacking Democratic control of state legislatures at the time of unified supermajority government discounted the possibility of proposing and ratifying an amendment on party line only, other ideological factors at play eliminated the sensibility of assuming its possibility. Shared party label does not guarantee party line voting. For example, Democratic Party legislators in the 1960s split on many issues, most notably race.
Having established the necessity of bipartisan support of a proposed constitutional amendment, I eliminate many popular contemporary suggestions. An insufficient number of states and legislators would refuse to take on at least half of the suggestions outlined in retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, because the issues privilege one major party’s ideology over the other. Neither Republican-controlled states nor Republican members of Congress would endorse “reasonable limits” on election spending, a death penalty prohibition, or explicitly limiting the 2nd Amendment to service in a militia.
Other 21st century proposals introduced by members of Congress that would fail to pass bipartisan muster include: a balanced budget amendment, a 17th Amendment repeal, ending birthright citizenship, making the District of Columbia a state, limiting constitutional rights to natural persons, and abolishing the Electoral College. Instead, I would propose a constitutional amendment that automatically registers every citizen who reaches voting age and every person who becomes a citizen. As with many amendments to the U.S. Constitution, I would give Congress the power to enforce the amendment by appropriate legislation.
Among categories of successfully-proposed amendments, the United States has ratified the greatest number of amendments directly related to voting rights. The 15th Amendment prevented the United States or any state from abridging the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The 17th Amendment enabled popular election of Senators. The 19th Amendment prevented the United States or any state from abridging the right to vote “on account of sex.” The 23rd Amendment enabled voters in the District of Columbia to vote for President. The 24th Amendment prohibited the United States or any state from abridging the right to vote “by reason of failure to pay any… tax.” Lastly, the 26th Amendment prevented the United States from abridging the right to vote for people 18 years of age or older on account of age.
Some states even symbolically valued ratification of these voting-related amendments decades after certification. For example, Alabama, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Texas have ratified at least one of the aforementioned amendments since 2002. In other words, states have gone out of their way to affirm voting rights.
When considered alongside academic research, politicians could successfully construe automatic voter registration as nonpartisan. In their simulation of 246 hypothetical full turnout Senate elections from 1990 to 2006, Jack Citrin, Eric Shickler, and John Sides found that more electoral participation does not universally help Democrats. Further, merely eight electoral outcomes changed in their full turnout scenario. In a study of Presidential elections, this same trio found that a net gain for Democrats “would be both variable and numerically too small to change the outcome except in very close elections.” However, we rarely see very close elections. Using different methods, Benjamin Highton and Raymond E. Wolfinger found that “little change is observed” when the preferences of non-voters are aggregated with those of voters.
Clearly, political scientists across time have reached the conclusion that full turnout only changes the result of very close elections, and this amendment does not even impose mandatory voting. However, one should not use this consensus to dismiss the value of an automatic voter registration amendment. This amendment ensures unfettered access to the ballot for citizens, thus lowering the costs of an individual’s fundamental expression of political power. With this amendment, politicians in this country would cease debating and litigating controversial—and in some cases unconstitutional—voter registration and identification laws that have wasted valuable time and resources in local, state, and federal legislatures and courts.
In sum, I would propose a national automatic voter registration amendment because many other popular proposals could not achieve supermajority support. Academic studies have shown why national automatic voter registration would not privilege one party’s ideology. Congress and state legislatures also have a long history of affirming voters’ rights in the Constitution.