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Suffrage on the ballot
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Suffrage on the ballot
Suffrage ballot initiatives are geared towards expanding voting rights to whoever is barred from doing so. Historically, the suffrage movements of women and African-Americans have received the most attention from the public. In the United States, however, comprehensive voting rights (which some argue still do not exist) have been achieved incrementally over nearly 240 years, with provisions and amendments either attempted or made to extend rights to those who do not own property, Native-Americans, the lower-middle class, and even current residents of Washington D.C.
History of suffrage reform
While one would imagine a standard history of voting reform in the United States would begin with the qualifications in the Constitution and go from there, the Constitution and the various state constitutions after the federal ratification had a part in enfranchising previously ineligible citizens. Many colonies, even after the Declaration of Independence, had religious qualifications to have the opportunity to vote. In most, Jews, Quakers and/or Catholics were excluded from voting or running in elections, with Protestantism being the requisite faith to participate For example, the 1778 constitution of South Carolina states that "No person shall be eligible to sit in the house of representatives unless he be of the Protestant religion," The 1777 constitution of Georgia has nearly exactly the same wording over the issue, saying that "The representatives shall be chosen out of the residents in each county...and they shall be of the Protestant religion." The ratification of the United States Constitution in 1787 effectively did away with most faith-based restrictions on, with Article Six stating unequivocally "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Because voting itself was left up to the individual states, religion as a means to determine voting rights was not completely phased out until 1810.
The next major component of voting restrictions that began to be reformed were property qualifications. Before and after 1787, Delaware expected voters to own fifty acres of land and/or property worth forty pounds; Rhode Island set the cutoff point at property worth forty pounds or an annual rent of two pounds, almost identical to Connecticut's. Such requirements reflected the belief that property owners had a vested interest in the community's success and had demonstrated they were active and responsible members of society; as such, they and they alone should have the privilege to participate in civic affairs.During this time, however, dedication to this policy ebbed and its validity came under attack. Property restrictions gradually disappeared, and even tax-paying requirements waned after the 1820s.
The next breakthrough to be made in voting rights did not happen until after the Civil War and constitutes only a small part of an issue that has lasted about as long as the United States has existed, that of African-American enfranchisement. Political opposition to slavery began in the north during the 1820s, eventually coalescing in organizations such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1833. As the abolitionist movement grew in import between then and the Civil War, the other major suffrage movement to spill over into the twentieth century, regarding women, started to take hold. in 1848, the first Women's Rights Convention is held, demanding among other things the right to vote.
The animosity between pro and anti-slavery advocates came to a head in the Civil War, after which there was a series of amendments made to bolster the Emancipation Proclamation, forcing states, particularly in the south, to comply with the freeing of slaves. Only a few years after the Thirteenth Amendment guaranteed the permanent abolition of slavery, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all those born within the United States notwithstanding their race. The amendment overruled the previously adhered to Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited naturalization to "free white persons," leaving out slaves, free blacks and later Asians. Despite the amendment, and the seemingly natural consequence of blacks now being able to vote, many continued to harass and abuse those who tried to exercise their rights. Especially in the south, many whites started to try and limit the ability of freedmen to vote. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan used violence and intimidation to discourage freed slaves to even try and vote. The Fifteenth Amendment was passed in 1870, and said outright that the rights of citizens to vote will not be withheld based on race or any previous condition of servitude. Even with this, there was a continued rise in disruptive and violent groups, even more organized than the KKK, that worked to derail Republican organizing, keep Republicans out of office and intimidate or even kill blacks to suppress their votes. Arguably the most important piece of legislation, however, comes in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act
In the 1890s, a new string of legislatively supported forms of discrimination were established. In addition to simply terrorizing blacks trying to vote, things such as literacy tests and poll taxes were instituted as prerequisites to voting for anyone. Literacy tests required you to do things like read out loud a section of the Constitution, sometimes by heart and accompanied by an interpretation, to the registrar's satisfaction, as well as answer written questions on U.S. history and democratic procedure. Poll taxes more directly disenfranchised blacks, in that most Southern states enacted poll tax laws accompanied with a grandfather clause that allowed any adult whose grandfather voted prior to abolition to waive the tax. As all blacks before that point weren't even citizens, the clause did nothing to help them.
In the early twentieth century, African-Americans began bringing legal challenges forward questioning the constitutionality of such restrictions, a movement that led to the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It can be said that some progress was made during this time; the Supreme Court case Guinn v. United States of 1944 ruled that grandfather clauses in literacy requirements were in conflict with the Fifteenth Amendment, and so such requirements were struck down. General prejudice still flourished, however, and it was not until the major portion of the Civil Rights Movement that substantial change was enacted. In 1964, the Twenty-fourth amendment was ratified, outlawing poll taxes as a condition of voter registration and voting in federal elections.
The most important piece of legislation of the decade regarding voting rights, however, came a year later with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Trying to bolster both the Fifteenth and Twenty-fourth Amendment, the act prohibited states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure...to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." In addition to strengthening the previous illegalization of poll taxes, it also banned the use of literacy tests and required fluency in English to determine voter eligibility. One of the more controversial provisions of the bill was the requirement of certain states (almost all Southern) with a history of discriminatory practices to obtain approval from the Department of Justice to make any change affecting the voting procedure. A jurisdiction that seeks to obtain "preclearance," as it is called, for the change must demonstrate that doing so will not have the effect of discriminating based on race or proficiency in English. Such standards applied to states which in 1964 had used some method to limit voting and had less than fifty percent of the population registered to vote, and still continues to affect many states today, a continued source of debate and controversy.
The movement towards female suffrage was very much a parallel initiative to that of African-Americans through the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While small organizations would spring up and call for a female suffrage movement before the Civil War, little was heard of the movement on a national scale. But in 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was formed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Their goal was the creation of an amendment guaranteeing their right to vote, and they went as far as to oppose the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment until it included gender, along with race, as illegitimate grounds for denying suffrage. The group later merged with another prominent female rights group in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which served as the dominant woman's rights organization until the early twentieth century when the National Woman's Party (NWP) was formed.
By the time the split occurred, the NAWSA had become increasingly less radical, calling for individual states to lobby and petition for suffrage. While their efforts were met with a considerable measure of success (New York, for example, approved a suffrage petition signed by over a million women in 1917), it was the NWP that focused on the passage of a constitutional amendment to ensure female suffrage. The bill for such an amendment first came before the House of Representatives in 1915, but lost a series of close votes in both the House and the Senate before being passed by both at the beginning of the summer of 1919. The last necessary state ratified it just over a year later, making the bill the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
While most think of these two demographics when considering the issue of suffrage during the Civil Rights era, the prospect for those eighteen years and older to vote, rather than just twenty-one years and older, was an important part of the Vietnam War activist agenda. Many saw it as unjust that men who were being drafted were too young to have a say in the selection of those who were sending them to fight. In June of 1970, President Nixon extended the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one years old, stating along with his endorsement "I have directed the Attorney General to cooperate fully in expediting a swift court test of the constitutionality of the 18-year-old provision." Nixon's decision was almost immediately put to such a test in the Supreme Court case Oregon v. Mitchell. The state of Oregon filed a petition saying for the federal government to decree a minimum voting age of eighteen was unconstitutional. The court in effect sided with the state, saying the government could only set such requirements for federal elections, but had to leave state elections to the individual states. Spurred by increasing pressure from Vietnam War activists and other proponents of lowering the voting age, however, a Constitutional amendment proposal to lower the voting age for all elections passed the House and Senate only months after Oregon v. Mitchell, with the states ratifying it by the summer of 1971.
Modern laws and controversies
Despite the progress that has been made in establishing universal suffrage, controversy continues to surround the issue with some modern restrictions on voting practices and access still called unjust.
No federal law exists regarding the voting status of convicted felons, whether incarcerated or not, and so their legal ability to do so varies from state to state. There is a wide range of categories that the states occupy in terms of when in a felon's life they can once again vote, with some states reserving the right to possibly ban voting rights for life even after the completion of their supervised release (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming), while others allow those incarcerated to vote from prison (only Vermont and Maine). The number of people disenfranchised amounts to about 2.42% of the total possible voting population
Many see this issue as linked to the resurgence in attempts to disenfranchise blacks and minorities, mainly due to the sheer number of blacks disenfranchised in comparison to the national average. 1.4 million, or thirteen percent, of black men are not allowed to vote, a rate nearly seven times the national average, with that number reaching almost forty percent when looking at those states in which voting rights can be permanently lost. The United States also has the highest prison population and percentage of citizens currently incarcerated in the world, making their prospect for voting potentially critical in determining possible outcomes of elections.
- Williamson, Chilton. American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy. Princeton University Press
- The Avalon Project, Constitution of South Carolina, retrieved 7/29/2009
- The Avalon Project, Constitution of Georgia, retrieved 7/29/2009
- U.S. Voting Rights
- Colonial Williamsburg: That The Future May Learn From The Past, "Voting in Early America", by Ed Crews
- Voting Rights History: Two Centuries of Struggle
- Statutes At Large, First Congress, Session II, p. 103
- 15th Amendment to the Constitution
- Alabama Literacy Test
- Valelly, Richard M. The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004
- "The Voting Rights Act of 1965" U.S. National Archives. Retrieved on 2009-8-3
- One Hundred Years toward Suffrage: An Overview
- Richard Nixon, “Public Papers of the Presidents” June 22, 1970, p. 512.
- 400 U.S. 112
- Ratification of Constitutional Amendments
- Felon Voting
- Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States
- Prison Brief - Highest to Lowest Rates