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The Evolving Standard of Voting Rights

The Evolving Standard of Voting Rights

At the time our Constitution was adopted, more than two centuries ago, the majority of jurisdictions in the United States restricted voting to men of property. John Adams, a founding father, argued, in the same year that the Declaration of Independence was adopted, that permitting men without property to vote would lead to "no end" of similar demands on the part of others, including women and "lads." He made no mention of the fact that slaves, many free Blacks, indentured servants and Native Americans were denied the vote. If one set out down this path, Adams warned, the end result would be to "prostrate all ranks to one common level."

Later, the inimitable Benjamin Franklin posed the contrary hypothetical case of a man who owns a jackass worth $50, and who is therefore entitled to vote. Some years after, the jackass dies. Meanwhile, the man has become more experienced and wiser, but he is no longer entitled to vote. "Pray inform me," asks Franklin, "in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?"

Adams' position is reflected in the originally adopted Constitution, which contains no guarantee of the right to vote. But the sweep of American history vindicates Franklin. Voting rights, along with social and economic rights, have gradually, often against bitter opposition and with some backtracking, been extended so that nearly all may enjoy this most central of our democratic rights.

Alexander Keyssar, in his comprehensive survey of voting in the United States, notes that the same contradictions pointed out by Franklin drove a broadening of voting rights almost immediately after the Constitution was adopted. Between 1790 and 1850 numerous states legislated a secret ballot and lowered economic and residency barriers to voting. The process of industrialization gave new and largely unanticipated meaning to the expansion of the franchise as the burgeoning class of workers, often immigrants, began to integrate into the political process.

Perhaps the strongest and most persistent theme in the history of American democracy and voting rights has been the struggle for African American equality. The first wave of that epic struggle peaked with the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. Following the Civil War, which abolished slavery, the Reconstruction's XIVth and XVth Amendments to the Constitution (1868 and 1870) first introduced constitutional treatment of voting rights, profoundly altering the Constitution. The XVth Amendment prohibits denial of voting rights based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," and it served as the model for the extension of voting rights to other disenfranchised sections of the population. After prolonged struggle, the XIXth Amendment (1919) similarly prohibited denial of voting rights on account of sex, and the XXVIth Amendment (1971) prohibited denial of voting rights on account of age to those 18 or older.

The history of voting rights has not, however, been an uninterrupted march of progress, and legal enactments have not always resulted in the implementation of real rights. Voting rights have grown and shrunk along with the great struggles for social and economic equality. The defeat of Reconstruction (1876) initiated the period of greatest retreat in democratic rights in United States history, effectively disfranchising most African Americans in the South once again. The intent of the XVth Amendment -- to eliminate voting discrimination on the grounds of race or color -- has gradually, and against bitter and continuing resistance, been realized once again only since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Advances in election systems may also involve compromises, tradeoffs and ambiguities. For example, the adoption of our current familiar secret ballot (the "Australian ballot") in Louisville in 1888 was soon followed by its adoption across the United States. It offered a higher level of ballot privacy, but was a significant obstacle to the participation of many illiterate voters, especially recently freed slaves and foreign born citizens, because it required the voter to read the name of the candidate or party he wished to vote for.

As near-universal suffrage has been established more firmly in law in the wake of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the struggle over voting rights has increasingly shifted to expanding access to voting, to suppressing fraud and intimidation and to the complete and accurate counting of votes. In this context, VoiceVote contributes to the evolving standard of voting rights.
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