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Debating Voting Issues, Representativeness, and Reforms

Whose Voice Is Heard?

Source: Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 316-24.

Voices in the Past
Voting is a key form of political expression. The results of elections are talked of as the people's "voice." Today, almost all adult American citizens are legally entitled to vote. Exceptions include people who have not registered to vote, people under 18 years of age, and in most states prisoners and convicted felons.

Yet the right to vote has not always been this broad. Early in U.S. history, most voters were landowning white males from the "respectable" classes. The "working man," women, certain racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, the illiterate, and various new arrivals to communities were all barred from voting in various ways, in various historical periods, and for varying lengths of time.

Right to vote is a term (and a concept) that actually didn't exist in the federal Constitution until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The Amendment's principal purpose was to make former slaves citizens of the United States and the state where they lived. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed that the federal and state governments could neither deny nor abridge the right of U.S. citizens to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Yet the states remained free to set voter qualifications. Even as more citizens were allowed into the voting booth, politically powerful interests found ways to prevent those they viewed as less desirable, responsible, or worthy citizens from exercising the franchise.

Grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, and complex registration requirements all are ways U.S. citizens have been blocked or intimidated from voting. Later Amendments and laws outlawed many such restrictions. The Nineteenth and Twenty-sixth Amendments, respectively, gave the vote to women and to citizens ages 18-20. Still, even as late as 1950, ways were found to deny the political rights of groups such as Southern blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics in the Southwest.

The history of suffrage in the United States holds many elements in common with other nations, such as the eventual abolition of class-based and tax qualifications. But it has had unique features, including the early abolition of property requirements and the existence of slavery and a regionally concentrated, repressed population in the South. Finally, it was fairly easy for immigrants to become citizens (and potential voters). These factors influenced the approaches different interest groups took to both expand and restrict those who were allowed to vote. Today, strategies to "get out the vote" of the working-class and minorities are part of a continuing struggle to maneuver the political power of these groups into the camps of vying political parties.

A variety of hindrances to voting still exist. Critics of the last presidential election complained that some minority voters failed to vote because they were intimidated at the ballot place. Others argued that the government should have provided educational and other assistance to poor voters who needed help in registering and voting. Great concern was raised about whether and how absentee ballots should be counted, as well as about the possibility that antiquated voting equipment in economically depressed communities (that couldn't afford to replace them) prevented voters there from properly casting their ballots. The mechanisms of voting therefore came under fire as preventing the people's true voice from being heard.

Powerful Forces Bring Change
What forces have successfully overcome resistance to a broad franchise? These include social movements such as the campaigns to achieve equal rights for blacks and women. New, highly visible concentrations in urban areas made groups impossible to ignore that might otherwise have been overlooked. As the population shifted, calls came to draw up new voting districts through redistricting to allow the voice of the people to be more accurately heard. The legality of some of these new districts has been argued all the way to the Supreme Court, with varying degrees of success.

Attitudes and values shifted with time, and key events brought about unpredictable changes. The biggest gains in U.S. voting history came during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the first decades of the Cold War. The Viet Nam war has been credited with getting 18- to 20-year-olds the right to vote, with the argument being that if these young adults were old enough to go to war, they were old enough to vote.

Yet has the progress toward broad suffrage in the United States been smooth and steady? The answer is no. Over the history of the United States, suffrage has sometimes tightened, not expanded, with people even losing political ground, including naturalized Irish immigrants during the Know-Nothing period (1852-60); blacks in the mid-Atlantic states before 1860; Southern blacks in 1890; and people on public relief in Maine in the 1930s.

Adopted in 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment banned poll taxes in national elections; in 1966, the Supreme Court banned them for state and local elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 created severe penalties for anyone who attempts to deprive others of their voting rights. With these and other voter protections, the goal of universal suffrage, and the climate necessary for it to exist, has come within closer reach.

Who's Talking Now?
An unhappy part of the American voting story is that the electoral turnout in the United States is markedly lower that in most other nations. Some say that nonvoting is itself a statement—an expression of satisfaction and contentment. Yet studies have shown that those who are least likely to be satisfied, and those who are most likely to need the government's help, are also those who are least likely to vote. Further, the nonvoter is largely ignored by the two major political parties, who spend most of their time and resources reaching out to those who do vote.

At the same time, the more affluent citizens are, the more likely they are to participate in civic life and the electoral process, whether vying for political office, being an active member of a political party, campaigning, or volunteering on election day. These voices are heard most, as are the voices of well-organized groups and the well-funded lobbyists who often represent their interests.

History shows that no political institutions have ever existed that have permanently guaranteed political equality. American institutions are no different. Political equality is a goal that people who believe in democracy as needed for fairer representation; a system of campaign financing that allows modestly funded as well as well-heeled candidates a fair shot at winning; and a social and political climate that encourages participation of every citizen, even the disaffected. Only then can a real "people's voice" be heard.

(For election reform bills introduced during the current congressional term, see Congressional Bills 2001: A Selection of Proposals; for election bills introduced during any recent term, visit U.S. Congress and Federal Courts)

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