The fragile right to vote

The U.S. Constitution, as originally written, did not include the right to vote. Neither did the first 10 amendments, adopted immediately as the Bill of Rights. The common practice among the various states was to grant the franchise to white males property owners 21 years of age and older, but there were variations. New Jersey allowed some women to vote. Four states allowed free blacks who met the property requirement to vote. Some states barred Jews from casting ballots.

Various philosophical reasons were advanced for limiting access to the ballot box, and some individuals were — and are — no doubt more qualified than others to vote, but the underlying issue was simple and timeless: control. Benjamin Franklin, for one, thought property requiresments made no sense. He wrote:

“Today a man owns a jackass worth 50 dollars and he is entitled to  vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?”

Voting rights have evolved through our nation’s history and have been a frequent source of conflict between the states and the national government. It could be said that the Civil War was fought in part over voting rights, for it was not until the post-war amendments of 1865-70 that voting rights were formerly incorporated into the Constitution. Some historians believe Lincoln’s suggestion that some blacks should be allowed to vote may have pushed John Wilkes Booth over the edge, turning from presidential kidnapper into presidential assassin.

States continued to evade the intent of the Reconstruction amendments with voting laws explicitly designed to disenfranchise certain classes, especially blacks and poor whites. And, of course, women of all classes.

In 1910, Oklahoma passed a state constitutional amendment subjecting African Americans and only African Americans to a literacy test. The measure included a “grandfather clause” that excluded anyone descended from someone eligible to vote in 1865, or who had immigrated to the country since then. Voting against the amendment required marking through it on the ballot. Unmarked ballots counted as “yes” votes.

The grandfather clause was declared unconstitutional in 1915, in the first case involving the newly formed NAACP. By that time, state leadership was alarmed at least as much by the rise of the state Socialist Party, which had given voice to poor, rural whites, as it was concerned about blacks. So it passed a new voting law that limited voter registration to two 10-day periods a year; in those days, there were no permanent locations for registering, such as county election board offices. Rather, registering involved tracking down a precinct registrar, who might then effectively refuse the applicant by claiming not to have the proper forms available.

Well within the memory of people living today, the right to vote in America has been denied through legislative malpractice, intimidation and violence, so it is not surprising that some object to surrendering it in any way.

What is surprising is that so many surrender it voluntarily, by default, by failing to exercise it.

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