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.”