Friday, October 7, 2016

A Brief History of US Voting and Why You Should Register and Vote

“When you vote it takes two people to overcome you. When you don’t, it only takes one.” Ruth Yates Davis”

“Thousands of people died over the years so that all Americans could have the right to vote. To not vote, then, is to say that the struggle of all these people does not matter; that they died in vain and their sacrifices mean nothing. Do you really want to say that???” Anonymous

“Voting must really matter. Otherwise why would so many people go through so much for so long to limit who can do it?” John C-D

   The United States calls itself a democracy. One of the things we talk about when we talk about advantages of living in the US and of being a US citizen is that people here get to vote. Many of us are glad about that, and we assume it has always been that way. Voting is simply one of the things that makes America America, and that with the exception of the struggle for women’s right to vote, decided in 1920, and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, it has all been pretty straightforward and clear; we just had to correct a few missteps. When we look a little closer at the history of just who could vote and when, though, we discover that it is actually a much more complex history than we learned about in school. Voting, for the longest time in our history, was something most Americans were not allowed to do. For most of our history, most American citizens could not legally vote.

   The US Constitution originally provided for elective offices to govern the nation. We had the three branches of government, and two of them were to be elected branches. But the Constitution did not lay out who could and could not vote; it simply said that citizens could vote for an office and how some of their votes would be counted. The 3/5 Compromise, for example, said that in determining population to figure out how many seats in the House of Representatives each state would have, slave holding states could count each slave as 3/5 of one person.  States, then, were given wide latitude in deciding who could vote. After the Constitution was ratified in 1787 all states gave voting rights to free white men who held a certain amount of property and/or paid taxes. Some states allowed free men of color who met the property requirement to vote, and New Jersey allowed women who met its property the right to vote. But the vast majority of US citizens at the that time could not vote. Historians estimate that when George Washington was elected President in 1789 only 6% of the citizenship at that time could legally vote.

   As states wrote and re-wrote their constitutions following the 1787 ratification of the US Constitution, different limits were placed on voting in them for some specific populations. Jews and Catholics were prohibited from holding office and/or voting in several states until about 1826. Property requirements for white males were removed by most states by the 1850’s, but several state constitutions kept them in place for free men of color or removed free men of color from the voting roles altogether. Throughout the 1800’s there were various limits and exclusions in most states placed on Native Americans, women, immigrants, and Mexicans who had been living in what was Mexico when the US won the Mexican War. Chinese and other Asians also faced discriminatory limits during this time and up into the 20th century. Whoever was considered “undesirable” in a state faced limits or prohibition on their right to vote. 

   The results of the US Civil War, though, led to Amendments that for the first time spelled out in the US Constitution some specific definitions of eligibility to vote. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments ended slavery, defined citizenship, and granted male ex-slaves the vote. But states still had the latitude to set the specific requirements for voting, and after the end of Reconstruction (1877) many Southern states imposed poll taxes, literacy tests and more to prevent people of color from voting. So it was not until the late 20th century, after women got the vote in the 20th Amendment and the Voting Rights Acts decisions of the mid 1960’s were passed, that the majority of American citizens were truly able to vote. And that was some 181 years after ratification of the US Constitution.

   Clearly, voting rights were gained with long and persistent struggles to overcome huge obstacles. People marched, protested, wrote letters and petitions, lobbied, went on strike, were beaten and killed and did all sorts of things to advocate for the extension of the ballot. And there are many people continuing to do those things around issues of voter ID, whether ex-felons can vote, when voting can happen, and more. Pennsylvania registration for the 2016 election ends on Tuesday, October 11, and I strongly urge you to show up and vote. I agree with the sentiments in the quotes above; it has simply been too long and too hard of a struggle to get Americans the right to vote for me to NOT vote. I, for one, do not want to dishonor the struggles of so many people who made it possible for me to have this right. Nor I do not want to make it easy for folks to ignore or defeat me.

    But even if that history of voting struggle doesn’t move you, I ask you to consider the results of the election of Dwight Eisenhower to the Presidency in 1952. Eisenhower nominated 5 Supreme Court Justices to the US Supreme Court, including Earl Warren as Chief Justice, and they were all confirmed by the Senate. Long after Eisenhower was gone from office, those appointments are still having a tremendous effect on the United States. The Warren Court ended school desegregation in the US with its 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. It also established the rights of a person to due process when being arrested, i.e. the Miranda warnings. It also established the un-Constitutionality of mandatory Bible reading and prayer in public schools, decided that the US Bill of Rights applied to states as well as the Federal government, and much more. Some five decades after Eisenhower’s terms of office, his appointments are still having a direct impact on what our rights are and how we live our daily lives. These 9 people set the tone for decades of US life and of our understanding of the rights of US citizens.

   The next President will appoint at least two nominees to the Supreme Court, and whoever is in the Senate after November 8th will determine which nominees make it onto the Court. At least five decades of our basic rights, which we and our children will live under and be subject to, will likely be decided by this Court. So who wins the election for the Presidency and for Senate seats is indisputably important, not just for now but to the future of this country. For me, this election is much more than just, “Who do I like?” For me it is, “Exactly what type of country do I want myself and my neighbors and my child to live in? What rights do I want to see in place?”

    That is reason enough to vote for me. And I hope it is for you as well.  I hope you register and show up to vote. We citizens now pretty much all have the right to vote. It would be a shame, especially with so much on the line in this election, to waste it. I truly hope you don’t.

(Below is a link that can take you to an online registration site:

 If you are interested in the history of US voting, here are two timelines


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