Jim Cooper (D) District 5
By Joey Garrison / The Tennessean
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
"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
"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
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.
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."
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.
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
'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 ..."
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.
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.
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
"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
"If you say, 'Thou cannot, thou cannot, thou cannot,' and you say it enough times, then you can't."