Voting is a constitutional right to be exercised. With society’s current riots, protests, and upheavals stemming from the Black community feeling as if they are not being treated as equal, valued citizens of our America country, we will examine how our system got its start, how it measures up compared to other countries around world, how it works, and why voices such as Black minorities can feel unheard is important. The primary reason for this is people are not exercising their American right to vote, and thus are not electing officials who will fight for legislation to address their concerns. Voting is one of the most powerful tools in a democracy to enact change by electing officials who introduce and vote on legislation. In this three-part post, we’ll explore the various aspects of voting including its origins, its role in American history, voter turnout rate, the election process, voting and its effect on the criminal justice system, the NAACP, and conclude with recommendations for greater voting access to all citizens.
History of Voting
Origins of Democracy
Democracies in civilizations started long before America. The Ancient Greeks practiced democracy. They are who we get the origin of the word from. “Demos” in Greek means “the people”, and “kratia” translates to “power of authority.” In its truest form, a democracy gives power to the people that make up the group. In democracies, members directly vote for policies. As a member of a group that practices democracy, you can feel like your ideas and concerns are taken into account and heard. However, as this group grows larger and becomes more spread out, it becomes more difficult for members of the group to vote for every new law proposal within the democracy. In order to continue to address member concerns within a flourishing society, like America, the idea of forming a republic is adopted.
The American Republic
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” – The Preamble of The Constitution of the United States
In modern times, we often use the words democracy and republic interchangeably, but there is a distinction. A republic specifies that power resides in citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by electing officials and a chief of state (i.e. president) who are responsible to them and govern according to the laws enacted. The republic is a representative democracy, where all people don’t directly vote for every policy in the country, instead we elect representatives whose job is to represent our ideas and concerns in the day-to-day task of proposing, establishing, and enforcing policies. A representative democracy can only work effectively if the majority of member’s beliefs and interests remain paramount. The issue lies when elected representatives no longer act on behalf of the best interest of the people. Let’s take a look at some significant events that threaten the ideals of an American representative democracy.
America started off as a restrictive nation in regard to the right to vote, and over the years have in general taken progressive steps to allow this right to be exercised by more of its people. When our country was first founded in 1776, only white men aged 21 and older could vote. In 1789, George Washington was elected our nation’s first president, however, only 6% of the population were even eligible to vote. At the time, a key thing was that the states were regulating their own voting laws without any federal oversight. It was not until almost 100 years later in 1870, that the federal government passed the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution eliminating racial barriers to voting in all states. Even after federal legislation was passed, many states did not adhere to the standard and continued their discriminatory practices.
One of the most pivotal moments in America’s history was the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was a multi-decade-long struggle for social justice. The main issues of justice were legal racial discrimination, disenfranchisement, and racial segregation. One such legal discrimination was in the realm of voting. Black citizens were required to pay voting taxes and pass literacy tests in order to exercise their American right to vote. The Civil Rights Movement consisted of numerous forms of nonviolent protests to enact change by all Americans who found the current laws unjust: bus and economic boycotts, business and government sit-ins, etc. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was instrumental in helping get passed, was arguably the most significant legislation that allowed Black Americans to vote in higher numbers than ever before. The act shifted the power back to the federal government by ordering the states to outlaw their discriminatory practices such as the literacy tests and made it illegal for certain jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to change voting practices or procedures without “preclearance”.
U.S. Voter Turnout
Global Voting Statistics
Around the world, countries that have an election differ in their voter turnout rates. The countries with an election can be categorized into two groups: countries with compulsory voting and countries with no compulsory voting. Compulsory voting means it is mandatory to vote. According to a PBS article from 2014, there are 22 countries where voting is mandatory, an estimate of about 744 million people worldwide who are required by law to vote. Some nations’ enforcement of their voting law is harsher than others. Countries with compulsory voting have a higher voter turnout than countries with no compulsory voting, although, in recent years the overall difference has narrowed to less than 10%.
When we look at developed countries almost exclusively, the U.S. is towards the bottom for voter turnout. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016, 57% of U.S. eligible voters cast a ballot in the presidential election. Out of the 32 nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states, the U.S. ranks 26 out of 32 for voter turnout, despite being in the top 6 of these nations for percentage of registered voters (see chart below)
(Image from Pew Research)
U.S. Domestic Voting Statistics
Then, if you look at the narrow margins of a few, key American states that decided the 2016 presidential elections and how a higher voter turnout rate by Blacks could have easily given the other candidate a victory, you further understand how important showing up to vote can be. After fighting for the right to vote from almost the beginning of the founding of our nation, a sizable percentage of the Black community still does not vote. The Census reported that Black voter turnout dropped from 66.6% in 2012, to 59.6% in 2016. There are a number of factors we will expand upon later in this post series, but for now, let us look at how voter turnout, Black voter turnout specifically, could have affected election results in a few, key states.
In the state of Michigan, President Trump won by 11,000 votes, and there were 393,000 Blacks in Detroit who did not vote. Then in Pennsylvania, President Trump won by 44,000 votes, and there were 367,000 Blacks in Pennsylvania who did not vote. Same thing in Florida, where over 1 million and Blacks did not vote, and President Trump won by 113,000 votes (see below). Each of these states contain major U.S. metropolitan areas (Detroit, Philadelphia, Miami and Atlanta, respectively) where a large number of Blacks as well as other minorities reside. 530,000 eligible Blacks in the city of Atlanta did not cast their votes, and President Trump ended up winning the state of Georgia by 211,000 votes. Voting rights advocates blame low voter turnout on the following factors: the lack of education on the American election process, the disenfranchisement of citizens through the phenomenon of mass incarceration, and laws that have been enacted to suppress some U.S. citizens’ voting rights.
(Image from the New York Times)
Coming up in Part 2 of this series, we will discuss the American election process, how voting affects the U.S. criminal justice system, and enacted laws that have resulted in voter suppression.
*If you already feel confident that you understand U.S. elections and want to skip straight to learning about how to get involved and exercise your right to vote, click on this video below and have Attorney, Justice Fighter, and Atlanta NAACP First Vice President Gerald A. Griggs walk you through the process.