Voting is a right that shouldn't be taken for granted
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
If you are a devotee of the various social media outlets then you are aware that Tuesday was National Voter Registration Day. Celebrities and regular folk went out and registered themselves and others, and tried to raise awareness about the importance of being registered to vote. It was also a day to focus on issues of voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression as well as fears of voter manipulation and voter fraud.
There are only a precious few fundamentals that serve as the definition of what it means to be an American. The fact that your vote is your voice as a citizen of this country has always been an integral part of our democracy. Unfortunately, if you weren't a white man with some land or some money or both, about 16% of the population then, you were pretty much just a member of the voiceless masses.
It wasn't until 1850, about 75 years after America's independence, that the property requirement was dropped and allowed almost all white adult males to vote. It didn't take long for the voter discrimination laws and practices to kick in. In 1855, Connecticut became the first state to have a literacy test to vote, mainly to disenfranchise Irish-Catholic voters.
On March 30, 1870, the 15th Amendment was adopted. It gave newly freed African American men the right to vote. It specifically stated "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." That's when the shady voter laws really swung into high gear.
In 1889, Florida adopted a poll tax and 10 other southern states followed suit. One year later, Mississippi adopts a literacy test. When it is found that this keeps many poor whites from voting, grandfather clauses are added so that anyone who could vote before the implementation of the literacy test could still vote. African Americans would spend the next 75 years fighting voter discrimination in the courts all the way up to the Supreme Court.
African Americans were not the only race to experience voter discrimination. Native Americans couldn't receive citizenship unless they denounced their tribal affiliations, according to the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887. It wasn't until 1924 that the Indian Citizenship Act gave all "non-citizen Indians born in the United States" citizenship and the right to vote. Women got the right to vote on June 4, 1919, through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed and Chinese immigrants are given citizenship and the right to vote.
Even with all the laws and amendments giving all American citizens the right to vote once they come of age, there were just as many laws and ordinances established to suppress the vote of those who are not white males.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited states from implementing any type of prerequisite or qualification for voting, and said you could not be denied your right to vote based on your race or color. There have been challenges to the renewal of certain parts of this landmark legislation, including attempts at gerrymandering to create funky shaped districts designed to favor certain candidates from certain political parties.
While it would be pretty hard to get away with the intimidation tactics of the past, like burning crosses, physical violence and police brutality, there are more insidious ways now. Forcing people to jump through flaming hoops of red tape to obtain a "proper" ID in order to vote and refusing to issue ballots in languages other than English are just two of the more benign examples being used now to keep voters away.
Perhaps the worst example of voter suppression is just plain voter apathy. Too many of us are more interested in voting for the winner of The Voice than the next president, senator or representative. Too many of us don't realize the impact of state and local politicians or see the connection between our local laws and their enforcement and the judges we also elect.
What was true at the inception of our country is still true today. As a citizen of this country, your vote is your voice. It does not matter what you do for a living, how much money you make, who your parents were, where you live, who you love or how you look. One person, one vote.
The right to vote was not handed to any disenfranchised group. Each time people had to fight and sacrifice and sometimes die for the right to vote.
If you are an American citizen over the age of 18, not voting should never be an option. With the National Voter Registration Act, states are now required to have uniform and accessible ways for eligible citizens to register to vote. Voting is a right, a privilege and a duty. To not take advantage or to let others cheat you out of it is an insult to all those generations who were forbidden their right or had to battle to exercise it.
- Mariel Blake writes a weekly column for The V.I. Daily News.