Thursday, November 19, 2020

A Little Truth About Voting in the USA



  It is now over two weeks since the 2020 Presidential election, and we still do not have an official and certified “President to be” of the United States. Joe Biden is the presumptive winner, and most people assume that even if President Trump does not concede, Biden will be certified as the winner-eventually. But there are still lawsuits and several recounts to go through for at least another week. We are in a “post-election limbo’ of sorts.

    Things about this situation bother and worry me, of course, but it also has me thinking about the curious backstories behind US elections and voting. When I was in elementary school we were simply told that America was a “democracy,” whatever that meant, and that people had the right to vote. I think that most Americans, even today, are raised with that basic narrative and belief. As I grew up, though, I learned that that was not quite the whole truth. The history of US voting is a complex thing, and many Americans do not want look too deeply at the truth of it. One of my favorite history books, that’s not in my american history book, by Thomas Ayres has some disquieting truths about US voting. That book and many other sources gave me more information and more insight into the actual processes and happenings surrounding the history of the vote in the United States. It is a stranger tale than most Americans know, and much of it is not pretty.

  Initially only white men could vote, and it was only white men who had property and/or a certain amount of wealth. That meant that only about 6 % of the population was eligible to vote for George Washington. Over time, though, all white men were given the vote-North Carolina in 1856 became the last state to rid itself of the property requirements for voting. After the Civil War the right was expanded again. The 14th Amendment (1868) defined citizenship, and the 15th Amendment (1870), in theory, gave Black men the right to vote. But individual states, under the Constitution, have a lot of rights to determine voting requirements, and having something on paper is not the same as having it in reality. Hence the long struggles of the modern Civil Rights Movement to try to make what the 15th Amendment said in writing an actual, real-world reality. We are all familiar with the decades of marches, lawsuits, and demonstrations involved in trying to extend the vote to Black people. Many people were beaten, jailed and killed in that struggle. It was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Federal government became actively involved in enforcing the 15th Amendment. The Act led to the end of such things as poll taxes and literacy tests, and Blacks for the first time were truly given the right to vote in all states.

   Women weren’t given the right to vote until 1920-a scant 100 years ago and 144 years after Abigail Adams, wife of Founding Father John Adams, asked him during the writing of the Declaration of Independence to, “…remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than you ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of  the husbands." That request was only answered after decades of struggle.

    Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and other ethnicities were also covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The United States’ history with regard to those groups is heavily marked by Federal and state discrimination. Both citizenship recognition and voting rights were denied them for decades. The Voting Rights Act changed that. However, some of the protection of that act have been reversed by recent Supreme Court action. So there are still states that have intentionally passed laws and enacted processes that are designed to deny or restrict access to the polls by different groups. Establishing the right to vote in reality, continues to be an ongoing struggle

  This election has also been beset with charges of vote fraud. None of those charges has been borne out, but such charges are not new in the United States. And in fact, in several previous elections those charges were true. It used to be that becoming a US Senator was a stepping-stone to the Presidency, so becoming a Senator could be very important. In the Senatorial elections of both Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman fraud ran rampant. Hundreds of deceased people in Texas somehow managed to vote for Johnson when he won in 1948, with over 200 dead folks voting in one precinct alone. Truman used the actions of notorious Kansas City crime and political boss Thomas Pendergrast to help him win the Missouri Senatorial contest in 1934. Pendergrast’s men shot up opposing candidate’s headquarters and beat up poll watchers. In the end, four people were killed and eleven hospitalized. And Truman won.

  There was also President Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign organization, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or “CREEP”. In their zeal they created phony criminal and subversive organizations and tied them to Democratic candidates. They spread lies about Democratic candidates’ sexual activities. Most famously, they planned the break-in at the Watergate Hotel that was detailed in the book and film, All the President’s Men. All of that helped Nixon win the Presidency, but later led to his resignation.

   So as we wait for the official certification of Joe Biden as the next President, it is important for us to take a good look at the actual history of voting in the US and to realize what it calls for us to do. Yes, we need to vote; it is great that a higher percentage of people voted in this election than in any election since 1900. But we also need to be aware of and pay attention to all of the parts of the process and all of the time. Many of them happen at times that are out of the intense media spotlight of a Presidential election year, but they are still vitally important. So-called, “off year” state elections matter a great deal, as it is states that set most of the requirements for their citizens with regards to voting. Debates over things such as Voter ID, ballot design and voting district boundaries have real world consequences for citizens. Fortunately or unfortunately, being a citizen in a republican form of government is not a spectator sport. It takes continued vigilance and work, for we have yet to become a place where all people truly have equal access to the ballot. As Ben Franklin reportedly said when asked what type of government we had after the approval of the Constitution, “We have a republic; if you can keep it.” If we can keep it, indeed.


Thomas Ayres: that’s not in my american history book

Business Insider slideshow: How Voting Rights in America  Have Changed Over Time:  



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