In the United States, a country that takes great pride in its democratic institutions, voting is widely referred to as a fundamental, universal, even natural right for U.S. citizens--only superseded by the “unalienable” right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Yet the bevy of demobilizing and disenfranchising voter-identification laws passed by state legislatures in the last two years serve as an important reminder that the franchise isn’t listed as a right in any of our founding documents and, as history shows, was never considered one. It is only through broad political movements and bloody struggles that the franchise has been expanded to underrepresented citizens.
For most of U.S. history, the government was not a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” but a government of, by, and for the wealthy white male landowning elite.
Even before the American Revolution, each colonial government adopted its own requirements to vote. While these varied in specifics, most were based on well-established British precedents that extended democratic rights to white elites with land. Voting was not a right but a privilege conferred upon a chosen few. If it were a right, some feared, it would open up a Pandora’s box of voting rights for all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender--a nightmare some thought best avoided.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a committee of state delegates spent a hot summer week debating a uniform rule for suffrage. In the end, the Founders tied the right to vote for U.S. representatives to voting requirements in each state, a decision born both from ideology and out of political expediency--as uniform requirements for voting might sour the chances that the individual states would adopt the new Constitution.
Despite the slow expansion of voter rolls through the 18th and 19th centuries, it wasn’t until 1919 that universal women’s suffrage would be guaranteed and protected by a constitutional amendment. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, after years of peaceful marches and brutal violence, that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act would truly extend the franchise to all African-Americans. It wasn’t until 1971 that the 26th Amendment would allow 18-year-olds to vote.
Despite the hard-earned wins, state legislatures across the country have been cracking down on the fallacious specter of voter fraud with a volley of voter-identification laws that are expected to disproportionately suppress turnout of minority voters. One study finds that upwards of 10 million Latinos could be deterred from voting this year. Another illustrates the bills’ effects on young minority voters, driving down turnout in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida, where even small numbers of voters can determine who sits in the Oval Office.
Given the nation’s history with voting requirements, these draconian laws aren’t surprising. They exist because the U.S. Constitution devolves voting and registration requirements to the states, allowing a patchwork of expansive and restrictive laws to determine who can easily vote and who will face various hurdles on Election Day. As precedent has shown, however, these barriers can be overcome.
Today, on National Voter Registration Day, as nonprofits, civic-minded volunteers, and political campaigns around the country work tirelessly to navigate state laws, register voters, and ensure that turnout is high on Election Day, let’s call on Congress to finally live up to the ideal and rhetoric of universal voting rights.
Let’s call on Congress to draft and pass a national voting rights constitutional amendment that renders moot onerous voter ID laws. Let’s make sure that the diverse voices of immigrant and minority communities that bring so much vitality to our democracy are strengthened not silenced. Let’s make sure that all Americans have the right to vote.
Tyler Reny has studied and lived in Barcelona, Spain, and Buenos Aires, Argentina; interned for Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in Washington; researched state welfare policy for the Rockefeller Institute in Albany; and now manages research and evaluation and crafts the social media presence for the New American Leaders Project. He graduated summa cum laude from Skidmore College and plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in political science.
The New American Leaders Project is the only organization in the country specifically focused on preparing first- and second-generation immigrants for civic leadership. NALP recruits individuals with a track record of civic involvement and trains them in the key skills needed for leadership from the community to the Capitol.