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What does it mean to vote?

Voting is an integral part of American society. If American citizens did not vote, our government would fall apart. Democracy is, after all, rule by the people.

By voting, the American public has the opportunity to select people who will represent them in the government. This is important as it forms the basis of our society. This country was founded on the belief that tyranny is unacceptable, and in order to prevent tyranny, we must have a Democracy. Our government is not in fact a true democracy, but rather a Democratic-Republic.

What does it mean to say that all 'citizens' can vote?

Over the course of history, many restrictions have existed to hinder suffrage. In the beginning, only white property-owning tax-paying males were allowed to vote. This meant that less than 7% of the population had any say in how their government operated. Even the founders of our country did not believe in the average-persons ability to make an intelligent voting decision. In the words of John Jay, "The people who own the country ought to govern it."

There have been many ways the government has tried to limit universal suffrage. Among these things are:

Gender barriers to prevent women from voting

Ethnic barriers to prevent Blacks and other minorities from voting

Age barriers to prevent people over 18 but not 21 from voting

Gender barriers prevented women from voting. Gender barriers had long been included to prevent women from voting, and up until 1919, only 11 states permitted women voters. During the 19th Century however, women's suffrage groups grew in number. In 1848, women's suffrage groups met at the Seneca Falls Convention to discuss their grievances and draw attention to their cause. It would not be until after the end of World War I however, that they would get their wish. The Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and ratified on August 18, 1920.

In addition to the gender barriers faced by women, Blacks and other ethnic groups also faced discrimination. When the Constitution became the supreme law of the United States, blacks, both slaves and free men, made up about 10% of the population; yet nowhere were slaves permitted to vote, and free men could only vote in a select few states.

Shortly after the American civil war of the late 19th Century, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment. This amendment did little however, to ensure the right of Black citizens to vote. Southern states, annoyed by this amendment, passed three provisions to keep Blacks from voting:

  1. Grandfather Clauses

  2. Literacy Tests

  3. Poll Taxes

Many southern states had Grandfather Clauses as part of their state constitutions. Since most Black's grandfathers were slaves, the clause effectively prevented most Blacks from voting. This was in effect until 1915 when the Supreme Court declared such clauses unconstitutional.

In addition to the Grandfather Clauses in southern constitutions, voters were often made to pass biased literacy tests. While Whites only had to write their name, Blacks were often forced to explain a complicated section of the state or national constitution. The Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1970 outlawed literacy tests.

As if the Grandfather Clauses and literacy tests were not severe enough, voters were often subjected to poll taxes as well. Although the tax was only a dollar or two, taxes must be paid for all previous unpaid years as well as the current year. This added up to a significant amount of money which many poor Blacks and other ethnic minorities could not afford. Included in the Grandfather Clause was a convenient method for Whites to avoid paying the tax, so it only barred ethnic minorities.

Not all barriers put up to hinder universal suffrage were based upon race or gender. Until very recently, the voting age was 21. That meant that while adult males ages 18-20 could be drafted and forced to fight for their country, they could not vote to elect its leaders.

This debate ended after the adoption of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. This amendment gave suffrage to over 10 million people.

What voting requirements exist?

Nearly all states have three basic requirements for people that wish to vote:

  1. United States Citizenship

  2. Residency

  3. Registration

All states require that people who wish to vote be citizens of the United States. This requirement stems from the fact that an American citizen is considered part of the American political life, while an alien is not.

Most states also require that a citizen wishing to vote be a resident of the state in which they wish to vote. This requirement is due to the fact that many people believe that a person who moves into a new state just before an election cannot become properly informed of the issues and candidates.

Prior to 1970, residency periods ranged from 3 months to 2 years. But due to the Voting Rights Act of 1970, this period was changed to 30 days in most states. Some states are allowed to extend the period to 50 days. Some states, New Mexico for example, has no residency requirement.

All states except for North Dakota require that voters register their names with the local election board. On Election Day, an official must check voters' names to help prevent fraudulent voting acts.

In the past some states made voters register every 5-10 years. Currently, voter registration is nearly permanent. A voter's name can be stricken from the list is he/she does not vote for a certain number of years or moves. It is of course removed when the person dies as well. Alaska removes a voter's name who has not voted in two years; Oklahoma waits eight years.

Why do more Americans not vote?

Despite the advantages of voting, many Americans do not vote. There are many reasons why Americans do not vote, but the three most prominent reasons are:

  1. Residency and Registration Requirements

  2. Lack of Interest in Politics

  3. Distrust or Dissatisfaction with Government

Many people do not vote because they are not registered. Surveys from 1992 indicate that 59.5 million eligible people were not registered to vote. Complicated registration procedures and problems with registration offices are often cited as reasons why citizens are not registered. Limited hours of operation for registration offices lead to frustration in potential voters causing them to believe its not worth the hassle.

Registration requirements are also difficult at times. Due to our highly mobile society, experts estimate that nearly one-fifth of the total population changes states every five years. New state residents may simply forget they need to register, especially if it has been five years since they had to do it last.

Many citizens who do not vote are simply uninterested in politics. They do not care who is elected, and often have attitudes such as "it does not make any difference who is elected because things never seem to work out right" or "candidates say one thing before they are elected and do another after they are elected." Robert Hutchins may well have been right when he said:

"The death of democracy is not as likely to be assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

A third reason for low voter turnout is a distrust of Government. With scandals erupting from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica Lewinsky, it is little wonder Americans are distrusting. An ancient adage comes to mind,

"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." -- Unknown --

What can be done to increase voter turnout?

Many things can be done to increase voter turnout. Some suggest moving Election Day from a Tuesday to a Sunday; that way, all citizens can vote without being forced to take time off from work. Another suggestion would be to allow voters to register on Election Day; that would eliminate the difficult process of registration all together. A more dramatic version would create a national system for voter registration. If this was done, people would not have to re-register when they change states.

Studies have shown that voter turnout also increases when the voters have a direct say in government. Not just to elect officials, but to approve legislation. Three ways this can be done are:

  1. Initiatives

  2. Referendums

  3. Recalls

An initiative is a procedure whereby a law can be created by the citizens. The new proposed law is known as a proposition. In a direct initiative, the citizens themselves vote on the legislation. In an indirect initiative, the law is first voted on by the state legislature. If after a certain time has elapsed and no decision has been made, it then goes to the citizens.

A referendum is a procedure whereby voters approve/disapprove of a measure the state has passed. An optional referendum is one in which the legislature has the option of allowing the voters to approve it. A mandatory referendum is one in which the state must send the legislation out to be approved by the public before it becomes law.

A recall is a procedure by which the citizens can remove a representative before his/her term has expired. This only happens if the public believes the representative to be incompetent or untrustworthy.

These pages are Copyright (C) 1999 John D. Ratliff
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