Tuesday night, I watched reports of record low voter turnout in numerous places during the U.S. midterm elections. Despite its flaws — government is a human construct, after all, and therefore imperfect — a democratic political system offers its citizens the opportunity to take charge of their own governance. It is also the responsibility of those citizens to go to the polls and use their best judgment to select representatives to serve in their local, state and national governments.
If the numbers are correct, a lot of Americans are not stepping up the plate.
This is ironic, considering how few of us would be permitted to vote if the constitution remained in its original state. When it took effect in 1789, not even being white, male, and 21 automatically entitled a person the right to vote. As the constitution was written and interpreted originally, only those adult white men owning a certain amount of property were allowed to participate in elections. The amount required in order to cast a ballot varied, though in some states the minimum was as high as 50 acres. Other states allowed income to replace part of the real estate requirements, but the guiding principle was to restrict the vote only to the wealthiest members of society. Depending on how local authorities interpreted the law, even non-citizens who met the property requirements might be allowed to vote while working Americans were denied a voice in their government. And don’t forget the Americans who, being neither male nor white, had no legal standing as individuals, much less the power to decide how they should be governed.
Before the end of the eighteenth century, lawmakers recognized the injustice of reserving voting rights only for rich men. Vermont, admitted to the Union in 1791, required only a minimum age, residence in a district and “quiet and peaceable behavior” for a man to vote. Very likely surrounding states regarded Vermonters as the Far Left of that era, for no other state came close to such universal male suffrage. Property requirements did start to erode, although they were replaced by tax requirements. This allowed far more Americans to vote than originally planned for by James Madison and the rest of the Constitutional Convention. Fortunately, Madison and Co. also understood that they could not possibly fortell the future needs of their new country, and included a mechanism so that later generations of Americans could amend their governing document.
It took three amendments to the U.S. Constitution to extend the right to vote to all adult Americans, the most recent one enacted in 1964. People died for the democratic principles set forth in the Fifteenth and Twenty-Fourth Amendments. The Nineteenth Amendment took eighty years of steady agitation and painful defeats by our foremothers so that my daughters and I are able to participate in our own government.
One more amendment affecting suffrage in the U.S. was enacted in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18, in recognition of the sacrifices made by young Americans serving in our military.
So next time an election comes up in your area, remember that somebody, somewhere, had to fight so that you could fill out a ballot and participate in your own governance. Learn about the issues you care about. Then step up and vote!