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Honor JFK By Renewing His Constitutional Commitment to Extend Voting Rights

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But his labors were not in vain.

The final states, Maine and South Dakota, signaled their approval in the weeks after the president's death

When the 24th amendment was added to the Constitution in January, 1964, the change in the founding document was heralded with front-page headlines in newspapers and broadcast reports from coast-to-coast; except, notably, in southern states where too many media outlets had aligned themselves with the massive resistance to civil-rights legislation -- even when that legislation took the form of a constitutional amendment.

The constitutional elimination of the barrier Kennedy derided as "the property qualification" for voting signaled the arrival of what the late president had hoped for: "another turning point in the history of the great Republic." With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it seemed, finally, that the nation might move "beyond the new frontiers" of which Kennedy had spoken.

Unfortunately, as the historian Eric Foner reminds us, the history of the right to vote in America is one of expansion and contraction. And the rights Kennedy and so many others fought to expand have been contracting with the passage of restrictive "Voter ID" laws, attacks on early voting and same-day registration, and a US Supreme Court move to gut the Voting Rights Act. Responding to the legislative and judicial assaults on the voting rights, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison have returned to the constitutional route that John Kennedy charted when he set out to end polls taxes and property qualifications as a barrier to voting.

With support from groups such as FairVote and Color of Change, the struggle for a constitutional guarantee of voting rights has gone national. Communities across the country are passing resolutions urging Congress to approve the amendment and send it to the states. As in the period before Kennedy embraced the campaign for an amendment banning the poll tax, there is a burgeoning grassroots campaign for constitutional intervention on behalf of voting rights.

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The Pocan-Ellison proposal states in simple language the values that voting-rights campaigners have championed for decades: "Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides," and "Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation."

Or, as John Fitzgerald Kennedy put it in 1963, "It is necessary (to) free the forces of our democratic system ... promptly insuring the franchise to all citizens, making it possible for their elected officials to be truly responsive to all their constituents."

Ari Berman describes the contemporary resurgence of Jim Crow throughout the United States.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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