Bilerico Report

What if we actually democratized the electoral system?

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Bil Browning

The principle of “one person, one vote” rings out upon the American landscape as an essential and central unifying element of our great democracy, but one which, unfortunately, merely resounds as an ideal rather than as the reality.

In the early years of our country during Colonial times, eligible voters involved only wealthy landowners, primarily white men. Because the framers of our Constitution could not agree on national voting standards, the individual states decided. Most states, though, continued to grant voting rights primarily to the landed gentry. In fact, during the election of our first President, George Washington, approximately only six percent of the total population of the new nation was eligible to vote. Eventually, white men of a certain age were granted the vote regardless of their ownership of property.  

Former enslaved peoples were granted citizenship in 1868 under the14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though only males could vote. The 15th Amendment passed in 1870 granting suffrage to males regardless of “race” on the federal and state levels. This did not extend to Native Americans since the federal government defined them in oxymoronic terms of “domestic foreigners.” In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act barring people of Chinese ancestry from becoming naturalized citizens, thereby excluding them from voting.

So-called “Jim Crow” measures enacted by a number of states placed enormous roadblocks in the way of African Americans registering to vote in the form violent intimidation, voting taxes, and literacy tests. In some places, African Americans were not allowed to register unless they determined the exact number of grains of rice or beans in a large container.

After many years of fierce and prolonged battles, women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, though other groups faced continued restrictions, including Asian Americans and Native Americans.

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