The right to vote is a fundamental pillar of our democratic system. But it is worth remembering that giving meaning to the right to vote has been a long, hard struggle to which many people have devoted their lives and for which some have lost their lives throughout our history.
For much of our history, the right to vote was limited to property-owning and/or taxpaying white men. Women, African Americans, American Indians, and immigrants were shut out in most parts of the country and in the Constitution, which largely left voting rights to the states.
Hard-fought constitutional amendments provided a framework for change but were not always entirely successful. The Fifteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1870, prohibiting the denial of the right to vote to citizens on the basis of their race. But ninety-five years later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to deal with, among other things, state interference with the right to vote on the basis of race.
The struggle to eliminate race discrimination in voting involved the lives of many people. John Lewis, now a member of Congress from Georgia, helped lead the “Freedom Summer” efforts in 1964 to register African-American voters in the South, along with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Many others joined in that struggle, risking life and limb. One participant, John Doar, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in May. Head of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division for much of the 1960s, Doar also played a key role in promoting voting rights. In 1964, Doar helped investigate and prosecuted crimes related to the killings of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights volunteers who were killed while participating in a voter registration drive in Meridian, Mississippi. Doar also represented the Justice Department’s effort to protect marchers for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
Another important figure, Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach, who died in May, was deputy attorney general from 1962 to 1965 and became attorney general in 1965. He is widely credited with helping to write the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and then leading the Justice Department in its enforcement.
The battle for suffrage for women was also a prolonged struggle that culminated in approval of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, prohibiting denial of the right to vote based on sex. The fight saw many suffragist leaders devote significant portions of their lives to the cause. From the convening of a now-famous rights convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to the final push for the Nineteenth Amendment seventy years later by Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, leaders sacrificed to win the right to vote for women.
There are heroes in other constituent groups as well who have fought to secure the right to vote for successive populations of immigrants and for American Indians. Even 225 years after the Constitution was written, the struggle is not over and new heroes for voting rights are needed and are emerging in each generation.
Stephen J. Wermiel, who teaches constitutional law at American University Washington College of Law, is chair of the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.