Voting: A Right or a Privilege?
When we go into an election cycle and early voter turnout is at an all-time high, it’s usually because there’s anticipation and hope for something different or better. In 2020, the early voter turnout is higher than two-thirds of all ballots cast in the 2016 election, according to CNN.
Every election cycle comes with excitement and apprehension. There’s a lot of emotion about who is the best leader to vote into place and frustration when the counts produce a winner different from those you selected on the ballot. Strong feelings are evoked when we start talking politics, so I’d rather pose a question: Is voting a right or a privilege?
When a topic is covered often, not in The Constitution itself, but in the amendments, it must be an important issue. The Atlantic says the right to vote is mentioned five times; let’s look at some of the places where the topic is discussed.
People want their votes to be counted. The voting opportunity you may think about cavalierly is one people throughout time have fought hard for. Whether it’s a privilege or a right depends on who you are and how you perceive voting.
Voting was established in 1776 and available to white men, age 21 or older, and who own property. Matters remain relatively consistent for the first decade, but in 1787 Article One of the United States Constitution stated that “the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”
You might notice there’s no mention of actual voters, but electors and their qualifications. The text seems to indicate that those running for office need to have certain qualities.
By 1868, full rights, including voting rights are extended to men born or naturalized in the US by the 14th Amendment. In 1870, racial barriers are eliminated by the 15th Amendment, allowing slaves the right to vote.
If you’re a man of this time, you probably feel like voting is a right. These men, who lived on and worked the land, felt they had the right to vote for the people who would be making and upholding the laws of the land. If you notice, up until this point, we've only been talking about men.
Suffragists pioneered many of the tactics we are familiar with today. We might think of billboards and commercials, whereas women went door-to-door rallying male supporters and even picketed on the White House lawn to rally support for their right to vote. It was common for women to wear white when they gathered in public. They made fliers, pins, and cartoons as political memorabilia to get attention for their cause. Creative women may have been the impetus of the earliest versions of items we know as swag today.
In 1920, the feminist movement has its first huge win, and women are empowered under the 19th Amendment. For the first time, women are allowed the right to vote. Although it can be radical, feminism doesn’t have to be in your face. Radical women of the day were peaceful by modern standards.
If you’re a woman of this era, you probably think it is your right to vote. No one likes to be considered a second-class citizen, and women who couldn’t enter the polls felt the ability to cast a vote wasn’t a privilege, but a right. They lobbied for an equal say in the laws that governed their lives, and they won.
Making Rapid Progress
A lot of small wins in the overall grand scheme happened quickly. The Indian Citizen Act comes about in 1924, giving all non-citizen Native Americans born within the United States the right to vote. Some states were slow to get on board and dragged their feet until about 1947, when all states allowed Native Americans the right to vote.
In 1964 Congress ratifies the 24th Amendment, outlawing the poll tax as a precondition for voting in federal elections. If you are an American citizen of this era, you feel you should be allowed to enter the poll because you’re a citizen. You’re probably offended at the suggestion that you pay a fee to register your vote. Why should you pay a fee for something when it is your right to vote? The right feels inherent to being a registered citizen.
All men and women age 21 and older, regardless of race, religion, or education, can vote. By 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act removing literacy tests and other obstacles to keep people from voting. Maybe you haven’t been to school every day because you’ve been home tending the fields so the family can eat, but just because you can’t read well, doesn’t mean you should be shut out of the polls.
This is your right, dammit.
The next big change happens with the 26th Amendment declaring all citizens 18-years-of age and over eligible to vote. Previously all voters had to be at least 21 years-of-age to cast a vote. And by 1975, an extension of the previously mentioned Voters Right Act adds extended benefits of translation materials for those with limited language skills.
If you’re 18-years-old, you’re not a minor; you’re an adult. As an adult, you can record your choice of a candidate who holds office. You’re not a kid anymore, and this is your right.
In 1982–84, further provisions for Americans with disabilities and elderly voters, not able to read and write, and those not fluent in English were added to ensure their freedoms. In 1990 Congress passes the Americans with Disabilities Act that requires election workers and polling sites to provide services to ensure people with disabilities can vote. Later changes make registration more uniform and accessible.
Even though we’ve come a long way, we can still improve. Just because your body doesn’t work normally, or you’ve accumulated many years of life, doesn’t mean your mind is inhibited. Your body and age are not reflections that your mind has deteriorated or that your ability to vote should be inhibited. Your voice deserves to be heard. It’s your right to cast a vote, should you choose to do so.
As a natural-born citizen, I’ve only had trouble at the polls once, and it took three visits to different government offices to re-register my address and county even though I had already updated my information at the license branch. Based on the wrong address in the system, I was denied the ability to vote. Only after the correction, was I able to vote a limited ballot, meaning I couldn’t vote on local issues, but could vote on who I wanted to hold state and national offices. Until then, I’d always looked at voting as a privilege and an honor, something civically responsible people do.
If you’re a citizen who wants to vote, I encourage you to make your choice heard. Some people think voting is a right based on the 14th Amendment. Others argue that there’s no such right, but a privilege. Maybe the ability to vote is both a right and a privilege. What do you think?