On Tuesday, November 6, U.S citizens will vote to elect their country's President, representatives to Congress, Governors of their state and local city officials.
This will be the most watched election around the world. As Americans head to the polls, there are already concerns that voters, especially African Americans, in some parts of the country are being denied their fundamental right to vote.
Did you know there were times during the country's history when the voting process wasn't democratic at all? Blacks, women, the poor, and the young have all been denied the right to vote at one point or another.
The American Struggle
In ancient Greece, citizens participated in what is known as a direct democracy. But even then, the process was not open to everyone. Only free citizens could vote; women, slaves, and foreigners were not allowed to participate in the political decisions that directly affected their lives.
After independence, in 1787, Americans began to put their hard-earned right to vote to use, electing Representatives, Governors, Sheriffs, and even coroners. But right from the start, the United States government found ways to exclude people. At first, only white men of property could vote. Soon after, President Andrew Jackson abolished the requirements for owning property, saying that the government was for the common man.
But it would take another war before a second group would be given the right to vote. In 1870, following a bloody and drawn out Civil War to end slavery, the United States government added an amendment to the Constitution, granting non-white men the right to vote.
States, however, still found ways to get around the law. They excluded citizens from voting based on literacy tests and poll taxes. Since former slaves had been denied the right to education and were extremely impoverished, many African-Americans failed the literacy tests. It wasn't until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and '60's that these barriers to voting were removed and African-Americans could finally cast their ballots.
Suffrage: Women and 18-Year-Olds
Women were also denied the right to vote for close to a century and a half in the United States. The Seneca Falls Convention in New York, 1848, marked the beginning of a large effort to grant women access to the ballot box. Political activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began building their case for women's suffrage. The movement reached an apex during World War I.
Why was World War I so important in getting women the right to vote? It provided a critical backdrop for women to deliver their message. President Woodrow Wilson said America was fighting in WWI for the sake of democracy. In response, several women picketed outside of the White House with signs like “President Wilson is deceiving the world when he talks about democracy.” In 1920, Tennessee was the final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment into law, granting women the right to vote.
Other groups in this country had been prohibited from voting as well: 18-20-year-olds, people of different religious backgrounds, Native Americans, and to some extent even the homeless. We've come a long way since those early days in 1787. Exercising the right to vote is a privilege, and a right worth preserving.