Just Saying… America’s Checkered Voting Rights History

by January 12, 2022

Social and political commentary from a progressive point of view

While this nation is known as a representative government for the people by the people, its actual history tells quite a different story. It appears the idea of America as a bastion of freedom is somewhat of a misnomer. As a young nation, we have spent more time denying citizens the right to self-govern than we have allowed them the freedom to participate.

For the disenfranchised masses, the battle has been ongoing throughout this nation’s history. That battle continues today as the Voting Rights legislation proposed by the Democratic Party languishes in a Congress that would prefer to exclude citizens rather than to gain full participation in the political process.

Even at its founding, this nation limited access to self-governance to white, landed males. During the Colonial and Revolutionary periods voting was restricted to property owners over the age of 21. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, only landowners were allowed to vote. That translates to white males. When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787 no federal voting standard existed. That meant that states decided who could vote. That, again, generally meant white male landowners. When George Washington became the first president of the United States in 1789, he was elected with only 6% of the U.S. population eligible to cast a vote.

It seems that our inclination was to deny access to the vote rather than to promote democratic inclusion. As more and more immigrants came to America, the 1790 Naturalization Law was passed; explicitly stating that only “free white” immigrants could become naturalized citizens, and thus have access to the ballot box. It wasn’t until 1856 that voting rights were extended to white men who were not property owners, with North Carolina being the last state to remove the property ownership requirement. It was thirteen years later, under the 14th Amendment when former slaves were granted citizenship. Still, only males were allowed to vote.

Even though in 1870 federal legislation held that the vote could not be denied because of race, explicitly, voting rights were left in the hands of the states. That is when primarily Southern states began to use discriminatory tactics to enact measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests to restrict the actual ability of African Americans to register to vote.

While disenfranchised populations struggled against this lack of inclusion, they met with fierce opposition.

Violence and other intimidation tactics were widely used to discourage those who might want to exercise their right to vote.

In 1872 the white suffragette Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote in the presidential election. She was arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, New York. At the same time the former slave Sojourner Truth, an advocate for justice and equality, attempted to cast a ballot in Grand Rapids. She was turned away at the polls.

Native Americans remained among the disenfranchised until 1887. The vote was denied to Indigenous people under the pretext that they were not citizens as defined by the 14th Amendment. The vote was also denied to people of Chinese ancestry. In 1887 Native Americans were granted the right to vote if they agreed to give up their tribal affiliation.

It was 1890 when Wyoming was admitted to statehood and became the first state to legislate voting rights for women in its constitution. Native Americans were still required to go through Naturalization in order to be considered citizens and gain voting rights. It was 1920 before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote both in state and federal elections. Still excluded were Asian Indians and people of Japanese descent. While The Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to Native Americans, many states still made laws and policies to keep them from voting. It was 1947 before legal barriers were removed to keep Native Americans from voting. It was 1952 when those of Asian ancestry were granted citizenship rights.

Citizens in Washington D.C. only gained the right to vote in the U.S. presidential election in 1961. Yet in 2022 citizens of the District of Columbia, most of whom are African American, still do not have voting representation in Congress.

As you can see, this fight is not new. But over the years those excluded from the democratic process have had victories that move us closer to the ideal governing state that we purport to be. It is time for America to become the stronghold of freedom and self-governance it professes itself to be. It is time that Congress enact the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2021.

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Source: Northern California Citizenship Project Mobilize the Immigrant Vote 2004 – Capacity Building Series

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