Opinion: Protect our fragile democracy
Democracy. The word didn’t even exist in the English language until Western Culture was two decades into the sixteenth century. The term derives from two Greek words, dêmos (people) and kratos (rule). The idea that people could “rule themselves” was put into practice in our Constitution when it was adopted more than 230 years ago.
We often hear our form of government referred to as an experiment, a very old experiment. We treat it as if it were set in stone at the end of the 18th Century, but it’s actually a series of ongoing experiments, a “living” document that is continually adapting to the realities of societal conditions and the pulse of the public.
Written and enacted when slavery was practiced in states that joined the union, it was based on certain “unalienable rights,” including the premise that “all men are created equal” and that they are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That description of our democracy may have been an ideal, but it was not a practice.
From the very origin of our country, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in the House of Representatives. This placated some southern colonies, where African slaves outnumbered Europeans in certain counties and parishes, encouraging those colonies to become states in the new nation.
The right to vote
Universal suffrage for white males did not exist before 1820. During the first couple of decades of the nascent United States, only white men who owned property had the right to vote. This right and privilege did not extend to African American men until passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, which stated that the right 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.”
It was not until 100 years after all white men who had attained the age of 21 were allowed to vote that women were granted that same right with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. But during the decades between the end of the Civil War and the institution of women’s suffrage, most black men were not able to vote because of the poll tax and other proscriptions of Jim Crow, like the “grandfather clause” which allowed people to vote only if their grandfather had that right. The poll tax, an amount of money that could not be afforded by poor whites and nearly all blacks, was enacted by every state that was part of the Confederacy. It virtually eliminated the black vote in states where it was enacted.
Additionally, states — particularly, though not exclusively, in the south — administered “literacy tests,” supposedly to ensure that voters could read and understand the Constitution. A system of segregated schools assured that African American children did not get the same quality of education as white kids. But in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. Many school systems were slow to act. So, in 1959, the Supreme Court amended its ruling, adding the phrase “with all deliberate speed.”
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the “March on Washington” to bring attention to laws and practices that prevented black people from sharing the “unalienable” rights that had been guaranteed by the Constitution. Finally, on January 23, 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and poll taxes (as well as other barriers to voting) were eliminated.
Still, some southern states did not act on the amendment until many years later. Virginia did not ratify the amendment until 1977; North Carolina, 1989; Alabama, 2002; and Texas, 2009. As of this writing, seven states still have not voted to eliminate poll taxes: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming. But all 50 states have been bound by the amendment since 1965.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
During the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the law that protected racial and ethnic minorities from discrimination in voting behavior. Research over the years concludes that the Act had “successfully and massively” increased voter registration and voter turnout, particularly among people of color.
The Voting Rights Act also offered redress of impediments to citizenship (and therefore denial of voting rights) for Asian Americans. Citizenship for nearly all Asians was impeded by restrictions that had been imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
During the nineteenth century, many Native Americans lost their right to citizenship because of the Indian Removal Act, but in 1887 the Dawes Act granted voting rights to those Native Americans who were willing to give up their tribal affiliations. The Voting Rights Act also extended the right to vote to Alaskan Natives, although many villages still face difficulties voting.
Through the years, voting rights — as well as the ability to exercise those rights — have been central to the realization of our democracy. In a society based on the rule of law, issues that impact our core values — equity, inclusion, and justice — are often defined through the ballot box when we elect people who make the laws at local, state, and national levels.
However, since the beginning of 2021, a plethora of bills, many of which restrict voting rights, have been introduced to state legislatures. In Texas, for example, voters will have to make decisions on 49 such bills, while Georgia and Arizona have about two dozen.
Our democracy’s long struggle to become “a more perfect union” is, therefore, being challenged again. That makes it more important than ever for our citizens to understand that voting is not only a right, it is an obligation. So, unless you’ve already mailed in your ballot, please be sure to drop off your ballot now or go to a voting booth near you on Tuesday. It’s up to us, the citizens of this great republic, to assure the future of democracy.
• • •
Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. The idea for today’s column was suggested by Marcella Andrews. Jim Glynn may be contacted at email@example.com.