Cooper Proposes New Constitutional Amendment

May 1, 2013
Press Release

28th Amendment Would Guarantee the Right to Vote

NASHVILLE – In a speech at the Nashville Bar Association's annual Law Day luncheon, Rep. Jim Cooper proposed a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee voting rights to Americans. While the Constitution has been amended repeatedly to expand voting rights to groups such as African-Americans and women, it does not explicitly grant the right to vote.

"How many of you realize that, after the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, seven of the seventeen remaining amendments were necessary to expand voting rights? No other part of the original Constitution was so broken or so hard to fix," said Cooper. "And more repairs are needed ... Lincoln told us that government was supposed to be 'of the people, by the people and for the people.' Recognizing that everyone has something valuable to contribute to society will help us improve elections and society as a whole. Voting rights can turn equality-under-the-law into reality."

The amendment will be introduced in the near future, and the proposed text is simple:

"The right of adult citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State."

The full text of Cooper's speech can be accessed here: Law Day Equality Speech FINAL.pdf

Media coverage of Cooper's proposed amendment is below.

Rep. Cooper pushes for 'right to vote' constitutional amendment

The Tennessean
May 2, 2013
By Joey Garrison

Convinced that the right to vote for all citizens isn't fully protected under law, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, is planning a long-shot proposal to add a 28th amendment to the United States Constitution.

"What it would do is grant, for the first time in American history, a constitutional right to vote," Cooper said Wednesday after announcing the proposal at a Nashville Bar Association luncheon during a strikingly personal speech that evoked race, discrimination and equality.

"Many people think we have this already," he said. "We do not. Some states have a right to vote. But we do not have it nationwide."

Cooper said he's working with congressional colleagues on drafting the amendment, which he predicted could be introduced in "weeks or months." He cited new "barriers to voting" nationwide, calling it a "high probability" that recent voter-identification laws passed in several states, including Tennessee, would not be constitutional were this amendment to exist.

"My text for the 28th Amendment could not be simpler," he said. " 'The right of adult citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State.'

"The enduring principle here is a judge would subject any restriction of voting to the harshest possible scrutiny."

Amending the constitution is no small feat, requiring votes from two-thirds of the Senate and House and three-fourths of all states. The last amendment, the 27th, was enacted in 1992.

"It would be hard," Cooper acknowledged. "It will probably take a visible national scandal to get enough people behind it to pass. But if we have more Florida elections, that could happen."

Cooper delivered his push for a new constitutional amendment at the conclusion of a 20-minute speech that diverted from the norm for the wonkish Blue Dog Democrat, who has built his national reputation as a budget hawk.

It was also personal and blunt as he reminded a room of Nashville attorneys of the nation's history of racism — and how he believes it manifests itself today.

"My father was racist," Cooper said, referring to former Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper, who allowed the state to discriminate against blacks. "Of course, he did not think of himself that way — no respectable person does."

Candor was on full display when he read off the lexicon of derogatory words to prove a point on hate speech and protection.

"As civilization advances, the list of protections grow," Cooper said. "We need protection against blood libels like ..."

'Direct and blunt'

He concluded the sentence by uttering eight epithets, including the n-word and derogatory terms for women, Mexicans, homosexuals, Native Americans and the disabled. Then he added: "Equality under the law is the slow triumph of hope over history."

Attorney Gregg Ramos called the speech "direct and blunt" and said it hit the right tone. "I said, 'That's exactly right.' "

But some in the audience were taken aback by Cooper's word choices.

Alex Lee, an African-American attorney who was watching Cooper speak for the first time, said the speech was eloquent and that she appreciated its intent. But she said she was "shocked" by the use of epithets, which she found "difficult and uncomfortable" to hear.

The right to vote is generally assumed because the United States holds elections coupled with constitutional protections for certain groups.

The 15th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits denying the right to vote because of race; the 19th Amendment because of gender; and the 26th Amendment prevents denying the right to vote to citizens 18 years or older. Years of case law have supported the right, while the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory practices at the polling place.

"He's right, there is no affirmative right to vote," said James Blumstein, professor of constitutional law at Vanderbilt University. "But there's a right to vote for senator, a right to vote for the House of Representatives. Most state constitutions have some enfranchisement provisions. And there's a lot of limitations on discrimination.

"If you say, 'Thou cannot, thou cannot, thou cannot,' and you say it enough times, then you can't."

Rep. Jim Cooper proposes amending U.S. Constitution to protect voting rights
The Nashville City Paper
May 1, 2013
By Andrea Zelinski

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) is crafting a proposed 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed at protecting citizens' right to vote, he told the Nashville Bar Association Wednesday.

The Nashville congressman told the legal community he wants its help drumming up support for the amendment, pointing to voting discrepancies in Davidson County.

"Remember that Lincoln told us that government was supposed to be of the people, by the people and for the people. He did not mean some of the people," said Cooper at the bar association's "Law Day" luncheon, working off the theme of "Realizing the Dream: Equality for All."

Cooper's proposal, which he plans to introduce later this year, would grant a nation-wide constitutional right to vote, a right he said is not now protected nationwide. The measure would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, then ratification by three-quarters of the states to pass.

The key, according to Cooper, is for judges to subject changes to voting laws to the "harshest possible scrutiny," also known as "strict scrutiny" under the law.

His constitutional amendment would have probably taken up recent changes to voting laws in Tennessee by the state's GOP-led legislature, such as those that require voters show certain types of government-issued IDs to cast a ballot, he said. He also pointed to issues within the Davidson County Election Commission, which is reeling over concerns of its mismanagement of the election process.

"People who want to tamper with the vote or mess up elections would know that a federal judge would be on their case stopping that," Cooper said. "Today, we don't really have that guarantee. Sometimes they intervene, but after the fact when it's too late."

Cooper said his constitutional amendment would likely need to ride the wave of a visible national scandal to gain enough support to pass. "Right now it's impossible, but things change," he said.

Longtime attorney George Barrett blames Tennessee's GOP legislature for bringing the issue to the forefront by passing strict laws that require voters use a state or government-issued ID to vote. He is now awaiting a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling on his challenge to the state's new voter laws requiring such IDs to vote.

"There's been a concerted drive by the Republicans to diminish access to the ballot. This state, every state, (since) the Republicans took over the legislature and the governor's office, they've had these horrible, repressive laws to mitigate against the right to vote," he said.

In setting up his pitch for a new constitutional amendment, Cooper touched on racial tensions, including the high infant mortality rate here among minorities, last year's uproar over Gov. Bill Haslam's administration employing a Muslim woman, and the racism of the congressman's own father, former Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper.

"Here in Nashville, TSU student Wilma Rudolph was able to win gold medals in the World Olympics in 1960, yet she could not eat at a Nashville lunch counter, ride a Greyhound bus, go to the hospital, sleep in a hotel or use a women's restroom. She lived under American apartheid. And my father, a former governor, a Harvard-trained lawyer, did nothing about it. As did many members before him," Cooper said.

"The acid test for your support for quality under the law involves voting rights, because voting offers power over the law. Should every adult citizen be allowed to vote for our lawmakers? For most of Americans, the answer has been a resounding 'no' due to the fear that that wrong kind of people would vote. It's one thing to protect local populations, it's another to share power with them. You might end up giving your country away."