Why voting matters

Why voting matters

While the right to vote has been part of the US Constitution since the founding of this country. it was originally limited to white male landowners – a wealthy elite in many cases.  The right to vote, considered a cornerstone in the popular conception of democracy, is a hard-won right earned through centuries of war, civic strife, protest and direct petitioning.  In honor of the struggles of those who have come before, and to preserve the liberties that this nation holds dear, it is worth understanding what voting means and why voting is such an important act.

“The Fifteenth Amendment” by Thomas Kelly. (Library of Congress)

The first amendment to the Constitution related to voting came in 1870, almost 100 years from the date of its ratification.  The 15th Amendment was ratified on February 3 of that year, banning any restrictions on voting based on color, race or previous status as a slave. This should have theoretically granted all men of color the right to vote – and on paper, it did.  However, state and local regulations such as poll taxes, which were not ruled unconstitutional until 1966, denied people of color (and some poorer white people) any voting privileges.  Other tools used to deny voting included literacy tests and “moral turpitude” laws that denied the right to vote to former felons.  While literacy tests have been phased out as a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, three states still deny voting privileges permanently to those who have served their time in prison.  Another six states deny permanent voting rights to some classes of felons. 

“Votes for Women” postcard, ca. 1913. (Library of Congress)

Women did not get the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified 42 years after it was initially proposed.  In those 42 years, women suffered any number of indignities in an effort to vote, including jail time, hefty fines for attempting to vote, beatings and forced feedings.  Like people of color, however, women were also held up by policies intended to make voting harder such as the aforementioned poll taxes and literacy tests.  And to this day, women still make up only a minority of elected positions in the US.  A woman still has never served as President of the United States.  While the right to vote has been secured and reaffirmed, there is still a tremendous amount of work to do to ensure that women and people of color are heard at all levels of government and society.

How can you vote?  Each state determines their own voting laws.  In Indiana, you may register to vote online.  If you do not know if you’re registered, you may check your voter status at the same site where you would register.  Voting rights are extended to everyone over the age of 18 who has resided in the precinct where they plan to vote for at least 30 days before the nearest election.  Voters also may not be in prison at the time of the election, but may vote after they have been released.  If you want to do more than vote, you can volunteer to work the polls and help others exercise their right to vote.  Poll workers must be 18 years old and registered to vote, and in some Indiana counties may be paid for their services.  30,000 pollworkers are needed to adequately ensure the right to vote in all of Indiana’s precincts.

Image design by KT Lowe

Voting remains the most direct method of participating in democracy.  Even though the right to vote is extended to almost all adult Americans, that right is fragile and only as powerful as those who will vote themselves.  And yet young people vote in much lower number than older votes, with less than half voting in 2016, as opposed to 71% of seniors in that same election year.  If you have any questions about how to vote, or on the history of voting, Ask Us!  iueref@iue.edu

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