By Joey Garrison / The Tennessean
Convinced that the right to vote for all citizens isn't fullyprotected under law, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, is planning along-shot proposal to add a 28th amendment to the United StatesConstitution.
"What it would do is grant, for the first time inAmerican history, a constitutional right to vote," Cooper said Wednesdayafter announcing the proposal at a Nashville Bar Association luncheonduring a strikingly personal speech that evoked race, discrimination andequality.
"Many people think we have this already," he said. "Wedo not. Some states have a right to vote. But we do not have itnationwide."
Cooper said he's working with congressionalcolleagues on drafting the amendment, which he predicted could beintroduced in "weeks or months." He cited new "barriers to voting"nationwide, calling it a "high probability" that recentvoter-identification laws passed in several states, including Tennessee,would not be constitutional were this amendment to exist.
"Mytext for the 28th Amendment could not be simpler," he said. " 'The rightof adult citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied orabridged 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."
Amendingthe constitution is no small feat, requiring votes from two-thirds ofthe Senate and House and three-fourths of all states. The lastamendment, the 27th, was enacted in 1992.
"It would be hard,"Cooper acknowledged. "It will probably take a visible national scandalto get enough people behind it to pass. But if we have more Floridaelections, that could happen."
Cooper delivered his push for a newconstitutional amendment at the conclusion of a 20-minute speech thatdiverted from the norm for the wonkish Blue Dog Democrat, who has builthis national reputation as a budget hawk.
It was also personaland blunt as he reminded a room of Nashville attorneys of the nation'shistory of racism - and how he believes it manifests itself today.
"Myfather 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 persondoes."
'Direct and blunt'
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 ..."
Heconcluded the sentence by uttering eight epithets, including the n-wordand derogatory terms for women, Mexicans, homosexuals, Native Americansand the disabled. Then he added: "Equality under the law is the slowtriumph 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.
AlexLee, an African-American attorney who was watching Cooper speak for thefirst time, said the speech was eloquent and that she appreciated itsintent. But she said she was "shocked" by the use of epithets, which shefound "difficult and uncomfortable" to hear.
The right to vote isgenerally assumed because the United States holds elections coupledwith constitutional protections for certain groups.
The 15thAmendment of the Constitution prohibits denying the right to votebecause of race; the 19th Amendment because of gender; and the 26thAmendment prevents denying the right to vote to citizens 18 years orolder. Years of case law have supported the right, while the VotingRights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory practices at the pollingplace.
"He's right, there is no affirmative right to vote," saidJames Blumstein, professor of constitutional law at VanderbiltUniversity. "But there's a right to vote for senator, a right to votefor the House of Representatives. Most state constitutions have someenfranchisement provisions. And there's a lot of limitations ondiscrimination.
"If you say, 'Thou cannot, thou cannot, thou cannot,' and you say it enough times, then you can't."