Thursday, November 11, 2004

31. Preamble not always true

The Constitution begins with the phrase "We the people," which upon current reflection would seem to be decisively inclusive of all people. As our history tells us, this certainly wasn't the case- especially pertaining to voting rights. Many of our forefathers felt that voting rights ought to be restricted in order to maintain stability. Thus, voting rights were both left to the states to decide and, in nearly all circumstances, extended only to white male property holders. This debate on voting rights, while in a sense is still an issue today, was certainly an issue through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Thus, unbelievably, the greatest democracy in history maintained the disenfranchisement of women, African-Americans and other minorities for over 178 years.

The 2004 election will be remembered as the election in which Americans seemed to regain their spirit in democracy and exercised their privilege to vote. With voter turnout around 72%, candidates were forced to reach more and more voters. To disenfranchise one segment of the population could be costly for those bidding for election. No longer can candidates court the vote of the wealthy and influential, for as many have noted, each vote is worth exactly the same. I was particularly interested in the turnout of women and minority voters, for as I will detail, their right of suffrage was a long and arduous journey.

The right to vote for African-Americans began in 1857 with the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled against citizenship for Negroes. After the Civil War, the thirteenth amendment was passed outlawing slavery, and subsequently in 1868, the fourteenth amendment was ratified- making all persons born in the United States citizens thereof. However neither, although inclusive of equal protection of rights, explicitly prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Finally in 1870, the fifteenth amendment was ratified, granting African-Americans the right to vote. However, alas, what should be the end of the story is only the beginning in the plight of African-Americans to exercise their right to vote.

Although not directly related to African-American suffrage, the case that set the tone for disenfranchisement, especially in the south, was Plessy v. Ferguson. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled protecting state-mandated segregation, which is infamously known as the "separate but equal" doctrine. While again this case had little to do with voting rights, (it is much more relevant in school segregation, until Brown v. Board of Education) it did set the tone for racial prejudices. For like the issue of school segregation, every right afforded to African-Americans was swiftly undermined by legal loopholes and technicalities, new laws, and even blatant disregard for the law.

Voting rights for African-Americans from the time of the fifteenth amendment until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a period of ninety-five years, was hindered through a number of deplorable tactics. African-Americans were met with not only social pressure against voting, but also threats of violence from organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Southern states ran "white primaries," in which white candidates were elected by white voters before the general election. African-Americans also faced poll taxes, literacy tests and property qualifications- all aimed at disqualifying otherwise eligible voters. So great was the disenfranchisement in the south that in 1965 only 29% of African-Americans were registered to vote. That year, Martin Luther King Jr. led the famous 50-mile march for voter registration in Dallas County, Alabama, where only 2% of the eligible African-Americans were registered.

The right for women's suffrage, in some ways, began at the time of the American Revolution when Abigail Adams, wife of future President John Adams, warned, "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." Unfortunately, this advice fell upon deaf ears for nearly 150 years until the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920 and the right to vote was no longer denied based on account of sex.

Women tried to argue for their right to vote, most notably under the fourteenth amendment and its equal protection of rights clause. The Supreme Court however ruled narrowly upon these rights as applicable to only federal laws and in Minor v. Happersett stated that the fourteenth amendment did not protect women's right to vote. The court ruled that women's suffrage was a state issue. One of the most famous petitioners for women's suffrage was Susan B Anthony, who in 1872 was arrested for voting. In 1890, Wyoming was the first state to allow women to vote, and by 1919, just prior to the nineteenth amendment, 30 states permitted women to vote.

Finally, in 1964 the twenty-fourth amendment was ratified which prohibited poll taxes after statistics showed that in states that had poll taxes, the voter turnout was 50% less than that of states that did not have a poll tax. And, as I have mentioned, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, ending discriminatory voter registration tests, such as literacy tests, and electoral redistricting. In addition, voter rights were now to be under federal supervision and subject to federal action.

In the 2004 election there were still incidents of alleged voter discrimination, through intimidation, such as the verification of police records or the purposeful underutilization of voting machines in African-American communities. However, voting rights have improved significantly from prior decades, and should continue to improve in the future. And through the enfranchisement of women and minorities, our Constitution now means as it reads, "We the people..."

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