Since the birth of this country, voting has been a key feature of a representational democracy meant to give the citizenry access to the inner-workings of the government. And while the right to vote was included in America’s foundational document – the United States Constitution ratified in 1789 – exactly WHO could vote was not very well defined. Initially a privilege primarily afforded to wealthy, white men, voting soon became a brass ring pursued by citizens to show and express their uniquely American identity.
One of the most storied struggles to gain the vote is the fight taken on by Black people. Even as other Americans took up arms against British overlords and wrote inspiring documents proclaiming “all men are created equal,” Black people were worked, brutalized and killed as slaves for nearly 250 years. But after the Civil War and the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, the country began the long journey to give millions of Black people their due. In 1870, the 15th Amendment tried to do just that by prohibiting the denial of the right to vote based on race, color or previous state of servitude. However, it wouldn’t be until the passing of the 1965 Federal Voting Rights Act, brought on by the massive Civil Rights protests led by people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Height, which ensured registration and voting rights were federally enforced, that Black people became full citizens of the country they built under duress.
Ironically, the original inhabitants of this country, the varied tribes of Native Americans, had a similarly long and difficult road to the vote. Even though some Native Americans had been deemed citizens as early as 1817 and were part of the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship to former slaves, many in the country were not ready to accept them. This was embodied in people like Michigan Senator Jacob Howard who once said “I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me.”
The 1924 Indian Rights Act went further to grant citizenship to almost half of the indigenous Native American population but again it would be the 1965 Federal Voting Rights Act that would eliminate many of the state-sponsored attempts to keep them from voting.
And while women make up roughly half of the United States, they were not guaranteed full citizen status for most of the country’s existence. Though given (and often later revoked) access to the ballot sporadically in different states, it took open protest by women like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns to turn the tide. Camped out by the White House as the Russian delegate was visiting, Paul, Burns and hundreds of women displayed banners that read, in part, “Twenty million women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement.” Three years later, after Wilson relented, the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote – though women of color would have to wait another 45 years before theirs was, too.
Even today, more than 50 years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act has secured the most basic American right for most of its citizens, the country still has work to do to make sure people have equal access to the polls and aren’t discouraged, disenfranchised or inhibited by an onerous registration process, restrictive voter ID laws, or partisan gerrymandering. Beyond public policy questions, we must also build the social infrastructure to get people registered and to the polls so that voting is not only possible, but probable. But for all the work left to do, we should all take a moment to admire the courage of the Americans who fought, struggled and died to make sure we all have a voice.