Looking to 2020 With a Historical Lens: Why Your Vote Matters

“Hilary won the popular vote, but Trump is our President, what’s the point of going to the polls?”

“I vote in New York, which is already blue, does it even count?!”

“An absentee ballot… what’s that? This is way too much work.”

 

In conversations with friends and family, I hear a lot of reasons for general apathy to participate in our political system – and exercising the most basic right to vote. And, I cannot really argue against the above rationales for not voting are to some extent true; Hilary did win the popular vote, the electoral college trumps the popular vote in electing the President and voting takes time and effort from individuals. But, the risk of not going to the polls extends far beyond party lines. For that reason, I am not here to tell you to vote a certain way, but rather explain the historical context of voting, and why going to the polls matters, even if it doesn’t feel that way  

 

The right to vote is a bedrock sentiment for any functioning democracy; it rests power with the people to elect leaders who make decisions on their behalf. This type of power does not exist globally and does not always extend to all American citizens today. While conventional American history is rooted in revolution and the desire for independence for citizens from Britain, it is overly simplistic to think that the citizens fought for, and achieved, voting rights as part of our initial independence.

 

The only people who were empowered to vote at independence were white land-owning men, inherently leaving out masses of the nation. At the same time, our country was operating on an institution that enslaved human beings. The revolutions idea of a “citizen” was exclusive and limiting compared as compared to how we understand it today. After America ended its civil war over the institution of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1865, and the definition of “citizen” began to expand. In 1870, the 15th Amendment granted the right to vote for all men.

 

But, what about women? Leading abolitionists who fought for the 15th Amendment did not disagree that women should have the right to vote but were more concerned about ensuring that the 15th Amendment got passed. They feared that by including women at this time, there would be little chance of extending voting rights to formerly enslaved citizens. Instead, it took the consistent perseverance and radical strategies of women suffragists, who fought from all ends of a spectrum of ideologies, that got the 19th Amendment ratified in 1919.

 

The story does not stop here. After granting the right to vote to all women and men, it remained the case that policies and laws, such as poll taxes and grandfather clauses, continued to be enforced, disproportionately targeted the black community in an effort to prevent meaningful and substantive participation. And even today, there are Voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting which are designed to prevent certain Americans from exercising their fundamental right to vote.

 

This theme, shameful attempts to prevent Americans from voting, is well illustrated by the runoff election in 2018 for Governor in Alabama. Stacey Abrams (D) was running against Brian Kemp (R), acting Secretary of State. In short, Kemp refused to step down from his role, enabling him to pass and enforce policies designed to stop black votes from counting. Kemp’s political maneuvering resulted in a razor-thin win, and likely without it, Abrams would have won. While Abrams fought to have votes recounted, her eventual concession has not stopped her from the fight to secure voting rights. Abrams has started her own political movement, titled Fair Fight, to fight against voting discrimination on all levels across the country (learn more about her organization here: https://fairfight.com/fair-fight-2020/)

 

Voting was not sewn into the founding of America (and is far more complex than the brief outline demonstrated here). In this country, one’s voting power is one’s voice. It is important to understand that we have not all shared the right to vote. So, I urge you to take the time to participate in the democratic process and vote. It matters.