Perspective: Voting is the backbone of our democracy—and in the 21st century, it’s barely a right.
November 23, 2020
What’s the state of our nation?
2020 is undoubtedly a year for the history books. Four years into President Donald Trump’s term, a runaway virus, protests against police brutality and increasingly polarized politics have shaken the nation—not to mention the upcoming presidential election.
As the pandemic stripped people’s lifestyles to the bare bones, politics seemed to fade into the background, superseded by health concerns and more immediate changes. For the past several months, Americans have remained cooped up in their homes, tied to work or online learning, wondering if it’s safe to venture outdoors (if the sky isn’t an apocalyptic orange, that is). Asking citizens to vote, take a stance and fulfill their civic duty adds yet another issue to address. Still, even in the midst of 2020, the backbone of our representative democracy—the suffrage system—merits our immediate attention.
Suffrage: the right to vote, also known as enfranchisement. It’s the main ingredient to a democracy, direct or representative.
As a colony coming into its own, America was founded on the democratic principle that the power of the government comes from its people. However, the Founding Fathers did not wholeheartedly support unrestrained democracy. In fact, the Founding Fathers themselves only represented the upper echelon of society.
They were rich, white male statesmen. Many of them owned enslaved people. They studied law, business, finance and politics. While they wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, they didn’t truly believe that all men were equally endowed with the intelligence and tact of the educated few.
The Founding Fathers feared that the excesses of democracy, or “mobocracy,” would overthrow their perceived vision of America. In an attempt to prevent the common, uneducated masses from voting, the thirteen colonies limited suffrage to only land-owning, white men. “There is no guaranteed right to vote in the Constitution,” social studies teacher Brian Miguel said. “I don’t think it was the design of the Framers to have universal enfranchisement.”
As such, suffrage did not belong to every human male of the country, nor did it belong to women and a number of religious and racial minorities. Although it may seem as if our country’s made leaps of progress, continued methods of disenfranchisement and discrepancies in voter turnout reveal that suffrage is far from equal across our nation.
Even for those who are currently eligible to vote, not all care to exercise their democratic right. According to 2016 general election exit polls, 11% of California voters were between the ages of 18 and 24; 9% were between the ages of 25 and 29. For all the buzz about getting out and voting, the younger generations pulled through dismally, and the highest percentage of voters went to 50 to 64 year olds—a generation born when cassette tapes were a thing. “Every time you see the results, you always wish more people had turned out,” Miguel said. “The vote is to get the will of the people, and you need the people to participate.”
So what’s preventing us from voting? Let’s take it back a few centuries.
The struggle for suffrage
In the 1800s, a social movement for women’s suffrage, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, rose up in parallel with the fight for Black male suffrage, championed by Frederick Douglass. While the two causes initially competed, they coalesced toward a common goal by the early 1900s. On Aug. 18, 1920, more than a century ago, the women’s suffrage movement won. The ratification of the 19th Amendment stated, quite simply, that suffrage “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
But there’s a catch: amendments were sometimes empty promises. Black male suffrage had already been legalized some 50 years before with the 15th Amendment. In similar language to the 19th Amendment, it stated that suffrage cannot be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Even though this was part of the “supreme Law of the Land” itself, some states decided otherwise.
Thus ensued active voter disenfranchisement, an overt movement toward inequality starting in 1870, as former League of Women Voters Director and current Co-Chair of Voter Services Jeannie Lythcott explains. “The literacy test to vote that the white folks got was like the kindergarten ABCs, whereas they gave [Black individuals] the task of learning and reciting the Declaration of Independence or the first three articles of the Constitution,” she said. “Active suppression of the vote of Black folks was real.”
Voter suppression manifested in more than just literacy tests: disproportionately high poll taxes, limited voter registration, accessibility to voting locations and voter fraud escalated, in many places, to open violence. Disenfranchisement was written in state law as well.
This all changed with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “The point of the Voting Rights Act was to try to undercut all of the methods of denying Black folks the right to vote in one way or another,” Lythcott said.
The act prohibited many methods of disenfranchisement and required counties and states to report changes to voting procedures. In language that almost exactly echoed the constitutional amendment written 95 years before, it called for suffrage regardless of race or color.
This time, the words stuck—or rather, people were more willing to let them stick. The following years saw more diversity in office positions, government and business. “From 1965 until 2013, voting was an open affair,” Lythcott said.
That takes us to 2013, within the lifetime of every individual over seven years of age. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), with a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court reasoned that federal oversight of voting procedure modifications was no longer a necessary precaution. Consequently, they struck a key section from the Voting Rights Act, deeming it unconstitutional for overstepping federal power. In essence, the ruling permitted—and still permits—districts to establish arbitrary restrictions to their voting procedures without official authorization.
So the progress unraveled.
Roadblocks to the ballot box
In South Carolina, “voter purge” lawsuits aim to strike thousands of eligible citizens from voter rolls for the sake of maintenance. In Georgia, strict deadlines require eligible voters to register at least 29 days before Election Day, a policy that barred the ballots of 87,000 Georgians in the 2018 election. In Texas, there is only one ballot drop-off location per county. Even in California, the state and the Republican Party have recently been at odds over a number of unauthorized ballot drop boxes that could cause confusion among prospective voters.
Specters from a lifetime ago have returned to haunt us: poll taxes, literacy tests, voter IDs. They target minorities, social classes, immigrants and supporters of the opposing party. “That’s what’s going on in this day and age,” Lythcott said. “It has been going on since 30 seconds after Chief Justice Robert ruled against the Voting Rights Act.”
This century, social media and the internet are as much weapons as restrictive laws. Disinformation campaigns and political ads clutter online feeds and websites, with some even targeted at specific minorities.
For working classes, simply finding the time to vote can be a challenge. “We vote on Tuesday. That’s not necessarily the most accessible day for voting,” Miguel said. “There are concerted efforts to make voting hard, whether it’s the time that a polling place is open, the location of a polling place or type of ID you have to have in certain states. For a democracy, we don’t exactly make voting easy.”
The bottom line is this: voting isn’t an unimpeded, universal right. For many citizens, it’s more elusive than expected. Although widespread suffrage wasn’t the original letter of the law, it’s written in our country’s identity. If we are smothering the voices of the people, we can’t call ourselves a democracy.
Two steps forward, one step back
In 2016, California passed the Voter’s Choice Act, effective for the 2018 elections, to increase voter access. Its main provision was to create voting centers: locations for asking questions, registering to vote, requesting translated ballots and receiving and casting ballots before Election Day. These centers were open on weekdays and weekends, and they established an effective system of communication to catch errors and track ballots.
Fifteen California counties representing more than 50% of California’s population adopted voting centers before the 2020 election. “There we were, all set in Santa Clara County to run the election according to the Voter’s Choice Act with vote centers and all of that help,” Lythcott said. “And then the pandemic happened.”
At this point, the pandemic has been a party crasher for nearly every aspect of life. While in-person voting is still an option, it’s clearly not ideal with a virus on the loose. Instead, most eyes have turned to mail-in voting. In the past months, the United States Postal Service—which facilitates mail-in voting has become the subject of scrutiny, accusations and budget cuts. “The changes [to the postal system] have led to widespread reports of dramatic increases in delayed and undelivered mail,” Congresswoman Anna Eshoo said. “In several states, mailboxes were unbolted and driven away, causing a legitimate outcry from the citizenry.”
Notably, unlike universal suffrage, the establishment of a postal system is written into the Constitution. Furthermore, voting by mail has been a longstanding custom, despite accusations from our president toward its validity. “In the March 2020 statewide primary election, approximately 78% of registered voters received a ballot in the mail,” California Assemblymember Marc Berman said. “And the research is clear—voter fraud is exceedingly rare and support for voting by mail is not a partisan issue.”
To increase accessibility to mail-in voting, Assembly Bill 860 was passed by the California State Legislature to send ballots to all active, registered voters. It also extends the mail ballot dead- line to seventeen days after Election Day, and voters can track the progress of their ballot.
Berman, who penned the bill, believes it will allow citizens to vote without risking their health. “This will ensure that every California voter has the ability to vote from the safety of their own home,” he said. “I believe it will also increase voter turnout.”
Still, the pandemic may have impacted voters in more ways than restricted accessibility. Gunn alumna Shawna Chen, a former Editor-in-Chief of The Oracle and current Axios reporter, notes that the rise in anti-Asian racism from COVID-19 may discourage Asian American voters, who comprise more than a third of Santa Clara County’s population. “People are hurting a lot physically, mentally and emotionally,” she said. “Their livelihoods are being threatened.”
One out of every three eligible Asian American citizens does not plan to register to vote, according to Chen. With increased xenophobia, some might react with anger and activism, others with fears for safety and a desire to “keep their heads down.” Still, 17.1% of the American population is Asian alone or in combination with one or more other races, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. If these voters turn out, and if more minorities turn out, their votes may have an immeasurable impact.
In fact, some experts have forecast the highest turnout in more than a century, according to Eshoo. Californians have a mix of in-person voting locations, mail-in ballots and an election system that has persisted through wars, economic crises and epidemics. All that remains to be seen is if people still believe in our democracy.
We the people
To Palo Alto High School senior Rachel Owens, president of the student-led organization Vote16 and advocate for teenage suffrage, democracy is still worth fighting for. “Right now, some people may be losing faith in democracy, and in some ways that makes sense,” she said. “There are a lot of systems that are quite broken in our democracy. But I think that the foundation of democracy itself and the kind of democracy that we’re striving to achieve is one that we should keep working toward.”
To Chen, a 22-year-old college graduate, a political awakening is critical. “When you’re in high school, it doesn’t seem like it matters to you, because you’re not necessarily the one participating,” she said. “But when you get out of high school and once you’re old enough, you realize that this one vote, this ballot, has so much power in deciding your future.”
To Miguel, a father and U.S. Government teacher, it’s as simple as civic duty. “We need to increase voter participation,” he said. “And that isn’t just by voting but by informing and helping others vote. There’s a lot you can do in your role as a citizen beyond just checking a box once every four years.”
And to Lythcott, a sharp, politically active octogenarian, the might of democracy lies in its youth. “I know for a fact that young people have a lot of power that they don’t know they have,” she said. “School has been teaching you how to pass tests as if the SAT controls your life. We need to help young people recover that sense of ‘We know what to do. And we can do it.’”
Limited as it is, voting is our right. It’s written in a history of suffrage and suppression laws. It’s the tie between our government and our people. Those socially distanced pairs of citizens waiting for a turn at the public library ballot drop box; those posing for pictures with their masks on and the ballot in their hands; and those proudly holding up “I Voted!” stickers—that is our democracy. It’s up to the people to keep it alive.