We need to ask ourselves, "How much do we appreciate our right to vote?" Is it a right we cherish and take seriously, or is it something we can let pass without too much thought of the struggles our country has endured to assure our right to vote?
The right of each individual adult eighteen years of age and above to vote in America lies at the very foundation of democracy in this country. The right did not come easily. Our Constitution did not spell out who could vote. It remained for states to set their own laws about voting and for Amendments to be added to the Constitution that would assure voting rights to specific groups. Let's review a few of them.
In Colonial America only white men with property were routinely allowed to vote. By the time of the Civil War, almost all white men were allowed to vote whether they were property owners or not. In some cases, immigrants had to wait fourteen years for the right to vote. As the frontiers were settled, the citizens who opened new lands were given the right to vote. But there were limitations such as literacy tests, poll taxes had to be paid, and in some places, religious tests applied. Native Americans, most white women (except in some states, property owners) and most free black Americans still could not vote.
After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. In this Amendment, former slaves were made citizens and their status changed from being counted as 3/5 of a person to a whole person. In 1869, the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to black men. But most women of white and black races were still denied the right to vote. It would not be until the Civil Rights movements of the 1950's through the 1970's that voting rights were assured to blacks- men and women.
Go back in time to 1848. When women were barred from abolitionist meetings, the suffragettes became active. The first Women's Civil Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The two leaders who stood out in that meeting were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Coming out of that meeting was a strong written document, adopted by the delegates, entitled "The Declaration of Sentiments." It was worded much like Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. In "Sentiments," women demanded the right to vote. It was a battle gaining momentum from 1848 through 1920 when finally the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was passed. Some of the annexed western states were first to grant women the right to vote, with Wyoming leading the way.
Civil Rights marches in the 1960's were accelerated, with violence and bloodshed. After many demonstrations, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the "Voting Rights Act" on August 6, 1965. It affirmed the right of African-Americans nationwide to vote. Although the right had been granted with the 15th Amendment, most of this group's right to vote had been restricted by poll taxes and literacy tests. Unfortunately, many were denied the right by arbitrary minor technicalities and intimidation to stay away from the polls.
The Voting Rights Act of 1970 called for assistance with language for those who were not fluent in English. This legislation helped many Latino- Americans and Asian Pacific Americans to be able to cast their votes.
The Vietnam War indirectly brought voting rights to eighteen year olds. The argument was that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the war, they should be franchised. Prior to the passage of the 26th Amendment, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1971, the voting age had been 21 and above. It was lowered to 18.
Of course, to be able to vote, each individual must be properly registered in his local area and on the precinct roll as an authentic voter.
One of the latest voting assistance acts came to disabled Americans. "The Americans with Disabilities Act" was passed in 1990. Among access to public buildings and other amenities, the act also provided handicapped access to polling places and ballots.
When we hear the results of Tuesday's primary, view the Democratic and Republican Conventions, and hear the battle for the nation's chief administrator from now through the General Election in November, let us not take our vote for granted. To be sure, there are still some pitfalls in our democratic way. But of all the countries in the civilized world, we have the opportunity to be the voice of the people. It came with much struggle.
c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 7, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.