It’s election time, making the air thick with promises and finger pointing that distract most Americans from ever considering the deeper things…like what literally lies in the bedrock of our right to vote. No matter how great our Constitution and Declaration of Independence are, America was not founded with built-in equality when it came to voting. The right we now possess to vote has been a treacherous journey for all those who found themselves prohibited. It took the better part of our first 200 years as a nation to practice what our declaration actually states, that all were created equal.
Our initial voting system permitted a vote to be cast only by citizens who were white, male, over 21 and wealthy. That didn’t sit well for long with …well, anyone else! This long list of excluded citizens would, over time, initiate a series of events that would pave the voting-booth trail to the equality we practice today.
There were numerous obstacles to overcome. Thomas Dorr was a wealthy legislator who labored to make it possible for all men over 21 to be eligible voters. By 1884, his efforts had landed him in court to be tried and convicted for treason. Citizens had to be a property owner to vote until 1890 and were required to be a tax payer until 1895. Alice Paul led women successfully to insist on their right to vote by 1920, but not before many of them were beaten, declared mentally unstable and jailed. President Lincoln brought the 15th amendment that granted embattled African Americans the right to vote in 1870 but it took the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, one hundred years later, before African Americans were safe to vote in this country.
The generations before us were entrusted with their point in history the very way we are now entrusted with this one. Our struggle is no longer to ensure that all will receive the right to vote. Our struggle is to ensure that all right-holders will exercise their right to vote. This privilege was delivered to us by the broken lives of those whose ideal of equality they practiced. If our recent habits continue as a nation, only 56% of registered voters will even make the effort to cast their vote. Election days can be notorious for unexpected challenges, but would we really look into the eyes of an Abe Lincoln or an Alice Paul or a Martin Luther King Jr. and whine that the effort was just too hard? Too inconvenient?
Hours from now the portals of government will open up and ask you for your opinion. It is your patriotic duty to ensure that all matters inconsistent with your beliefs are not embraced by those you choose to represent you. As George Jean Nathan said, “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.” It’s time to quit treating the power of our vote as an heirloom trinket that we inherited but keep at the bottom of a drawer somewhere. Vote to retain or deny power as you see fit but never let it be said that we turned our backs on those who ensured our liberty to do so.