“Envision a democracy where every person has the desire, the right, the knowledge and the confidence to participate” challenges the League of Women Voters.
Envision democratic self-governance so flourishing that citizens can say “the government” and mean truly “by the people, for the people.” Envision a government that is an extension of all United States citizens, not a government we view with suspicion and cynicism. To realize this means we all participate starting with our vote.
Sadly, universal voting rights began and remain a dream deferred for many. From the founding, voting rights were not “baked into” our original Constitution. The framers allowed states to establish procedures, and out of this, voting rights became a political football. To understand, it helps to review how and for whom such rights have been restricted or denied over the 250 years of our nation, so we’ll review historical patterns that affected Quakers, Jews, Catholics, Native Americans, Black Americans, women and Asian Americans.
As we call upon the Senate to pass S.1, known as the For the People, and John Lewis Act, it’s wise to see the justification for the laws. How much of the following did you remember or learn?
The Six (or 10) Percenters, 1776-1788: The right to vote has never been uniform and universally accessible. Initially, most states allowed only property owners, primarily white men, to vote. In 1776, New Jersey gave unmarried and widowed women who owned property the right to vote, only to renege on it in 1807. At the same time, New Jersey took the right to vote away from free Black men. In 1789, many states prohibited Quakers, Jews, and Catholics, along with women and Black men to vote. The Constitutional Rights Center notes that “After eliminating everyone under the age of 21, all slaves and women, most Jews and Catholics, plus those men too poor to be freeholders, the colonial electorate consisted of perhaps only 10% to 20% of the total population.” Documents on suffrage in the National Archives estimate that only 6% of US residents could vote due to property restrictions.
The First Generation, 1789-1800: As the first generation of citizens aged, Georgia first broke the property ownership restriction in 1789. Vermont, then New Hampshire, Delaware and Kentucky also dropped the restrictions. Some gave rights to Black men to vote, but then removed them within a decade. By the end of the 1790’s property ownership was required in some states and not others, but most states did not allow any women or Black men to vote. While the 1790 Naturalization Act allowed free white men to become citizens, it didn’t give them the right to vote. Entrenchment, 1800-1865: The exclusion of groups of people deepened in the 1800s. In a few states, Black and non-landowners could vote, which is how Frederick Douglass registered in 1840 to vote in Massachusetts, but only after paying the poll tax, which would have been the equivalent of about one hundred dollars today. According to the Pence Law Center’s timeline of voting rights, in 1821 New York made the amount of property a free Black man had to own so large that it prohibited Black men from voting, and in 1824, Maryland allowed Jews to vote.
Two Steps Forwards, Five Steps Back, 1865-1900: It took the Civil War and the 14th and 15th Amendments to federalize citizenship to Black Americans and extend voting rights to Black men. On March 31, 1870, Thomas Mundy Peterson became the first Black man to vote after the 15th Amendment. Eager to exercise their participation as citizens, six hundred thousand Black men registered to vote by 1890- a number that was reduced to just a few thousand by 1950. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote, and Sojourner Truth spoke for women’s right to vote. By the 1870’s, brutal exclusions raged. In 1876, Native Americans were declared non-citizens. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited early Asian immigrants from becoming citizens, thus the ability to vote. Then in 1887, the Dawes Act declared Native Americans could vote but only if they renounced their tribal affiliations. The century saw two wins for universal suffrage when Wyoming allowed women to vote, and the Indian Naturalization Act recognized the citizenship of Native Americans.
What history reveals is that universal suffrage is a kind of whack-a-mole, with one state progressing, another regressing. At present, some states are pushing bill mill legislation to chip away at access to the polls, creating more hurdles to register to vote, reducing polling stations and early voting in certain communities, restricting absentee ballots and undermining local officials. It’s why S.1 and the John Lewis Act both need to be passed into law.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.