- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Registering voters is something we can do. More difficult is encouraging voters to turn out. We would like to see the 5th Congressional District achieve a record turnout as a matter of community pride and unity. We do not have a lot of tools at our disposal.
America’s voter turnout is the lowest of the world’s democracies. We don’t vote as much as we have in the past. We think of ourselves as the model of democracy and universal suffrage, but the founding fathers had different ideas. Universal suffrage is a recent American ideal.
Speaking of ideals, universal suffrage is a more apt description than right to vote. Suffrage means the right to vote but with a higher purpose. It implies a sense of sacredness, as suffrage originally meant a type of prayer.
Today, we assume voting is a natural right but throughout history, voting has been classified as a social right, something earned. Other terms used include privilege, franchise, trust, obligation and duty.
Voting as a privilege rather than a right was inherited from British colonial law. The origin of voting as a franchise stems from franchise meaning privilege back then. One need have a stake in society, generally property, and be independent and competent to be granted such privilege or franchise by the colony or state.
Voting was not a key issue in 1776, but differing ideas emerged. John Adams was the archconservative who predicted revolutionary chaos if voting was allowed as a right. James Madison, typical of most framers, was concerned about the property-less voting as a bloc against the well-offs. More liberal views of voting as a natural or inalienable right were held by a few such as Benjamin Franklin and Ethan Allen. Benjamin Franklin put forward the following famous question:
“Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers — but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?”
Andrew Jackson was called a jackass during his 1828 campaign. Jackson embraced the distinction, promoting the expansion of voting to all white males. The Jacksonian era transformed the republic into a fledgling democracy marked by voter turnouts higher than at any other time. The franchise has undergone contractions and expansions since.
Generally, voting rights have been extended during wartime and contracted during peacetime. Absentee ballots were invented during the Civil War. During Reconstruction, the 14th and 15th Amendments extended voting rights to former slaves. By 1880, Southern Democrats had regained control, installing Redeemer governments that worked around the 15th Amendment, instituting literacy tests, property requirements, poll taxes and a good measure of illegal but condoned violence.
Women had long been denied the vote due to their so-called dependency. President Woodrow Wilson, besieged by suffragettes, switched positions during 1918, advocating women’s suffrage as a war measure. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, prohibiting state or federal sex-based restrictions on voting.
We did not achieve something close to universal suffrage until the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. The 24th Amendment repealed poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored voting rights to blacks. In 1972, the 26th Amendment guaranteed 18-year-olds the right to vote.
Today, we seem to be in a period of contraction but in 1776, it was The Maryland Gazette that printed in “A Watchman” that “the ultimate end of all freedom is the enjoyment of a right of free suffrage.” In the spirit of this historic statement, we are collecting voter pledges as a community celebration of the right. It’s like the Pledge of Allegiance. We don’t recite that because we need a reminder but together ritually, pray before two teams play hardball.
Susan E. Grogan, St. Mary’s City
The writer is a professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and treasurer of the We Just Want Stephen Colbert To Come To Our College SuperPac.