A brief history of universal suffrage in America
By Cotter Conway
Voting for elected officials is a freedom afforded to many countries around the world. Although most people in the United States realize just how important this freedom is, not everyone eligible to vote does. In the 2020 presidential election, only about 66.5% of eligible voters voted. Although this was the highest turnout since 1900, U.S. voter turnout lags behind several developed nations around the world.
When one considers the history of American suffrage – the right to vote in political elections – it is a wonder anybody would forego this privilege of citizenship. In colonial America, the basic principle that governed the right to vote was that a voter must have a “stake in society”. As a result, the vote was restricted primarily to those who owned property.
Following the Revolutionary War, some states replaced property qualifications with taxpaying requirements. This reflected the principal that there should be “no taxation without representation”, a leading cause of the war with England. Even so, when George Washington was elected President in 1789, only 6% of the population could vote.
The advent of universal suffrage did not come until 1856 when North Carolina became the last state to remove property ownership as a requirement to vote. It took much longer for many Americans, however.
Although President Lincoln had talked about extending the vote to black soldiers in the Civil War, opposition to granting suffrage to African American men was strong in the North. It took the 15th Amendment in 1870 to grant them the right to suffrage in both the former Confederate states and the Northern states by stating that the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race.
Still, Southern states drastically reduced black voting through lengthy residence requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests, property requirements, cumbersome registration procedures, and laws disenfranchising voters for minor criminal offenses. In the 1960s, it took efforts from civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith and John Lewis, a march from Selma to Montgomery, and the passage of the 24th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act, to finally extend universal suffrage to African Americans.
Women also had a lengthy path to universal suffrage. Beginning in 1866, women’s rights activists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, organized with the goal of universal suffrage. It took another 50 years, and an arrest for Ms. Anthony when she attempted to vote, until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 to give women universal suffrage.
In honor of those who struggled to reach the goal of universal suffrage, we all should exercise our right to vote in every election. Since 1984, when I turned 18 (thank you 26th Amendment), I have proudly voted in every primary and general election. So, if I might make a request; let’s all exercise our privilege of citizenship, head to the polls and cast our vote in the primary on June 14th (early voting starts this Saturday, May 28th). It’s the opportunity a democracy allows us; the freedom to choose our elected officials.
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