“Ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets.” — Abraham Lincoln
Please allow me ask you a question, “Would you rather vote, or die trying?” Countless people have lost their lives and lifeblood in order to gain a right that many people in this country now take for granted and don’t even bother to exercise: suffrage, the right to vote.
A review of the voting history of the United States reveals that the first people allowed to enter the polls were Caucasian male landowners. Represented by the Electoral College, which was established in 1788 by the Founding Fathers, making this country a Republic and not a Democracy, the people did not directly elect the President. Instead, each state cast one vote each for its two senators, and additional votes based on the number of representatives that each state had, based on its population. This is why accurate and current census figures continue to be so crucial to our system of representation.
During colonial times, with the exception of a few widows of property owners in certain colonies and a small number of free black men, only white male landowners could vote. It was not until after the United States became an independent nation, with the Constitution written and amended, that all of the individual states finally granted voting rights to all white men, regardless of property ownership. It was through these amendments to our Constitution that all citizens, regardless of race and gender, would eventually be granted suffrage.
In 1866,Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association, dedicated to universal suffrage for white and black women and men; they fought and dedicated the remainder of their lives to win the right to vote. However it was not until 1920, with the passing of the 19th Amendment, that women finally won equal suffrage. A few years later, in 1923, the National Woman’s Party made the first proposal for an Equal Rights Amendment, which has yet to be ratified.
At its entry into the union in 1848, Wisconsin had the most liberal of all voting laws, even granting suffrage to foreigners intending to become citizens who had resided in the state for more than a year. Nevertheless, women living in Wisconsin still could not vote.
It would be twenty-five years later, in 1870, five years after the end of the American Civil War, before the 15th Amendment would be ratified. The 15th prohibited states from denying suffrage to a citizen because of race. The extension of the franchise to black citizens was strongly resisted, however. Among others, the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and other terrorist organizations attempted, with violence and intimidation, to prevent the 15th Amendment from being adopted.
The so-called Grandfather Clause, which surfaced in Louisiana in 1898, nullified the 15Th Amendment, which allowed black men to vote in that state. The clause lasted well into the twentieth century, spreading into seven southern states, and significantly reducing African American participation in southern politics as recently as 1910. The clause stated that in order to vote, a citizen had to have an ancestor who had voted before 1898. It also relieved citizens of meeting the literacy, property, and poll tax criteria. Thus, the Grandfather Clause allowed poor illiterate white men to vote, while effectively disenfranchising black citizens.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), organized in 1909, mounted the first legal challenge to the clause, Guinn v. United States. in 1915. The Supreme Court ruled the clause null and void in Maryland and Oklahoma, because the law was adopted in order to give whites, who might otherwise have been disfranchised by the state's literacy test, a way of qualifying to vote that was not available to blacks, and therefore,the court opined, it clearly violated the 15Th Amendment.
This struggle for equal voting rights did not end with the Supreme Court’s decision, and even with the ratification of the 15Th Amendment, poll taxes still excluded the impoverished black citizens from suffrage, leading President Harry S. Truman to risk his political future in an effort to secure voting rights for all. In 1947, he called on Congress to pass a Fair Employment Practices law, which would establish a Civil rights Commission to end poll taxes. It was not until 1957, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, that this came to fruition. Even then, citizens living in Washington, D. C. could not vote in national elections until passage of the 23rd amendment took place in 1961.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson finally signed the Voting Rights Act, which enforces the 15Th Amendment by stating that literacy tests or complicated ballot instruction are against federal law. Congress expanded the scope of the Voting Rights Act in 1975 to protect those who could not read or speak English.
Until 1971, only 10 states allowed citizens to vote at the age of eighteen. The 26Th Amendment brought consistency to all the states by ratifying and lowering the voting age for all to eighteen years of age.
In 2000, for the first time in our history since the initial ballot was cast, the Supreme Court chose the President of the United States. The court stepped in because of the closeness of the vote count, which was also complicated by alleged voting irregularities and tabulating problems, such as the famous "hanging chads" on paper ballots, which were confusing to poll workers. Although Al Gore won the popular vote, George Bush had the majority of the Electoral College votes, and won the election. Many people believed that George W. Bush’s presidency was not legitimate because of the Supreme Court’s interference with the voting process. Certainly, we must vigorously defend the right and exercise of suffrage if we are to remain a free people.
Today, we have another group of individuals who would have us go back to the days of the literacy tests, as was evident during the Tea Party National Convention, held recently in Nashville, Tennessee. The keynote speaker, former Colorado Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, proclaimed, “People who can’t spell the word ‘vote’ or say the word in English, are responsible for electing Barrack Hussein Obama and putting a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.”
Obviously, times have not changed all that much since the early days. The struggles each group has faced and overcome in order to gain suffrage still rage on in this country. It is still visible in the faces of our elderly population, who implore us not to lose the hard-fought right; not to discard it like yesterday's fad.
It is crucial for all citizens to vote in this country, for you to vote. It is the expression of our wants and needs as a nation. It is our suffrage. It is our collective voice.