By Grace Rozembajgier
One week and one day from now, 218,959,000 Americans take the wheel of the country. With a pull of a lever or push of a button, these eligible voters show how truly similar they are, as they cast votes which promote their differences. While election day can be seen as a divisive time that polarizes a country, it is also a time which bonds and joins us together through the practice of our most fundamental right: voting. In America, the right to vote is a civil liberty, meaning it is a right that is protected by specific laws. As stated by the Supreme Court, the right to vote is “a fundamental political right, because [it is] preservative of all rights.”
The path that leads to today’s current voting rights has been paved with a democracy’s constant desire to represent its people. To truly understand this desire, you have to understand the history of the right to vote. Beginning in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence, voting was established as a privilege for white, property-owning, Protestant men. Eighty years later in 1856, property and religious restrictions were removed, extending voting rights to all white men in America. With the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1869, voting rights were granted to all male citizens no matter “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and in 1919, the 19th Amendment allowed women to vote. However, it would not be until 1964, with the Civil Rights Act, that discrimination of race, nationality, gender, or religion when regarding voting, publicity, the workplace, or education was deemed illegal. Reinforced by the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which prohibited voting discrimination on the basis of race, the Civil Rights Act truly established voting as a civil liberty. Following this milestone, the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, and the Disabilities Act, National Voter Registration Act, Help America Vote Act, and Military and Overseas Empowerment Act in the late 20th and early 21st centuries broadened the accessibility of voting to encompass all Americans.
So what does this history tell us? While the most significant dates in American voting history range as far as 80 years apart, it is important to note that since the founding of this country, no more than 20 years have gone by without some legislation passed to improve voting rights. Voting is not just about electing officials; instead, it is a living civil liberty that continually evolves to become more inclusive, just, and representative of our nation’s people. Even today, debates regarding voting rights continue, the most prevalent being whether convicted felons who have served prison sentences should be allowed to vote without having to petition for that right to be restored. Another current issue revolves around the question of non-citizens being allowed to vote in local elections, such as for school boards.
On the whole, America’s voting history parallels the story of our nation. Modeling American values such as hard work, equality, and individualism, the progression of voting throughout the past 240 years has come to effectively embody the idea that “voting is central to the equality of all Americans.” Initially, voting rights were restricted only to white men who paid taxes and owned land because, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History notes, the founding fathers wanted voting rights only for the “committed members of society.” However, today, voting is not for the committed members of society, it is what makes us committed members of society. No longer is voting a privilege given to the elite. Today, voting encompasses every gender, every race, every station in life. And when all eligible citizens exercise their right to vote, they have the power to create an America truly representative of its people and their voices.