In the beginning of our republican democracy, voting was largely the privilege of only white, Protestant landowners with no debt. This meant that not even some veterans of the American Revolution were allowed to cast a ballot for the very democracy they had recently fought to create. Over time, this changed through the constitutions of state governments, as states realized that white men who didn’t own plantations or homes should have the right to vote, though always with very specific stipulations to limit the sphere of those voting.
Changes begin with both the abolitionist and the women’s suffrage movements during the 19th century. Whereas abolitionists were fighting for the freedom of slaves, and the suffragists were fighting for women’s rights, both began with the most basic right of voting. The organized women’s movement for equality effectively began on July 19, 1848 with the “Declaration of Sentiments,” but women had to wait another 74 years to realize their goal with the passing of the 19th amendment in 1922. Abolitionists were only successful after the Civil War when, between 1868 and 1870, the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution were ratified. But it wasn’t until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that African American were effectively allowed to vote – almost a full 100 years after most states’ constitutions ratified the amendments allowing it.
These were huge accomplishments by great men and women who sought to expand the sphere of democracy to all American citizens. Unfortunately there were those who wanted to suppress the vote and maintain their hold on power. We began to see very effective procedures implemented around our country to disenfranchise voters with tools like poll taxes, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause (effectively negating the 15th amendment that allowed Black men to vote), which made it almost impossible for minorities to register to vote. The most disturbing example of these was the literacy test in Alabama where, if you were an African American and you went to the courthouse to register to vote, the Registrar would give you a four-page test on American civics. They would ask you to explain an amendment to the Constitution in great detail; but even the right answer wouldn’t be accepted.
With the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, disenfranchisement of minority groups on the basis of race was outlawed. And because of many great men and women, who in many cases sacrificed their lives, voting was again given to the free people of the United States.
However, our story is not over and we are left with many unwritten pages. There are still people who would attempt to limit the sphere of certain groups of American citizens, as to insure their hold on power indefinitely. While their tools may look different, when observed with the examples given during our history as a republican democracy, we see their true goal is nothing less than voter suppression. I believe that the greatest weapon that was ever given to us to fight oppression is the ballot. In the words of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, “Democracy is the best revenge.”