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
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
Age barriers to prevent people over 18 but not 21 from voting
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:
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:
United States Citizenship
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
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
Residency and Registration Requirements
Lack of Interest in Politics
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
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
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:
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
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.