The 2016 campaign for the presidency of the United States has shaken our democratic political system to its core, but it has also energized the public and tested the boundaries in ways that we can only hope will make our nation stronger down the road. With less than three weeks to go before Election Day, some voters are firmly encamped on one side or another of the presidential race and a remarkable percentage remain undecided. Then there are those American citizens who will not vote at all. According to the Pew Research Center, a whopping 53.6 percent of eligible voters turned out for the 2012 presidential election (and local elections are even sadder: typically in the 20-40 percent range). Millions of eligible but apathetic citizens have never registered to vote, others hold their noses and say they can’t bring themselves to vote for any of the candidates, and some will trot out that lazy old excuse that their vote “won’t count anyway.” Those who don’t vote are squandering a precious, hard-won right and responsibility of citizenship.
This fall I am teaching ancient world civilizations and both early and modern U. S. history. Each course touches on the evolution of political democracy and provides “say, what?” moments for students. We take the right to vote for granted these days, but in the past that right has been denied on just about every basis you can think of: property ownership, religion, race, ethnicity, color, previous (or current) condition of servitude, literacy, and all of the above plus gender.
The Classical Greeks were the earliest to recognize individual human ability and capability for self-government. In the Greek city-states (notably Athens in the 5th century BCE), free adult male citizens regularly convened to vote in direct democracy. (Men who kept to themselves and shirked their political responsibilities – “idiotes” – were worthless to the state, said the Greek historian Thucydides.) No women, foreigners, or slaves were allowed to participate, but it was nevertheless a shining moment in the collective history of our civilization. The Roman Republic also exercised representative government of male citizens for several hundred years in the first millennium BCE. Otherwise the history of world civilizations is mostly a long slog of empires, dynasties, kingdoms, and sultanates rising and falling, and nobody getting the opportunity to vote on anything.
In the late 18th century, revolutions in France and British colonial America lit the fire for government for the people and by the people, and nowhere was that more dramatically and successfully instituted than the new United States. Still the American democratic vote was restricted to property-owning white men: no women, no poor, landless men, no foreigners, no Native Americans, and no slaves (which the Constitution counted as only “three-fifths” of a person for the purposes of congressional representation). In time, more white men gained voting rights, and after the Civil War ended slavery, all men were granted citizenship and the right to vote, though harassment and decades of Jim Crow laws denied blacks their civil rights in the South.
When the post-Civil War amendments failed to include women, early feminists regrouped and continued to struggle for women’s suffrage. Without the vote, women had no avenue to address the myriad legal, economic, and social restrictions that held them back. The movement gained strength as the decades went by: women organized, marched, wrote, spoke, and suffered insults along the way. Increased activism, the Progressivism movement, the extension of the vote to women in several western states, and the First World War finally opened the door. The Nineteenth Amendment was adopted in 1920: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” That was less than 100 years ago.
After many decades of black segregation, intimidation, and voter suppression especially in the South, the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s made discrimination in education, employment, and public accommodations illegal, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy tests, which had often been used to disqualify black voters. While many states now require government-issued photo-ID documentation to vote, this new voter restriction rests most heavily in the southern states that have adopted it since 2012 as it disproportionately affects poor African-American voters.
The recent outcry over possible voter fraud and rigged elections is dangerously irresponsible, especially if “watchers” disrupt the security of polling places. We can fuss about the Electoral College till the cows come home, but the American electoral system is sound and secure with its registration process, state elections officers, and the secure handing and accurate tabulation of ballots. The days of the “spoils system” are long over. We are independent Americans citizens of every race, ethnicity, religion, economic class, and gender, all capable of rational thought, all possessed of human rights, and not beholden to anybody. We must each embrace our individual right and responsibility to vote responsibly and be grateful every time we do so for this hard-won opportunity.