Grateful to Vote

Sales booklet for an automatic voting machine
Smithsonian Institution

I just cast my ballot, but I’ve got to admit: I’ve rarely been so unenthusiastic going into the booth. I’m normally the kind of citizen who is giddy on Election Day — shucks, I even show up for primary elections when all that’s at stake is a city council seat — but this year I couldn’t muster much civic joy. To some extent, I’m sure I was simply fatigued by our seemingly endless election cycle and dissatisfied with the candidates. (I tried several of those “who should you vote for” quizzes. On one that broke down a wide array of economic and social issues, my highest rate of alignment with any ticket was only 55% — on economic issues with the presidential candidate I chose, but on social issues the two of us were only 44% in agreement.) But it’s also a gray, damp November day in Minnesota, and harnessing two near-three year olds while you mark a ballot is an exercise in frustration.

Nevertheless, I know enough about American history and the contemporary state of democratization to understand that casting my ballot remains a highly unusual act in the grand scheme of things. Among the billions of people who walk this Earth and the billions who came before, I’m one of a relatively small number to have voted in a free, multi-party election for all of my adult life.

Consider, from American history:

• Until the Jacksonian era, most adults could not vote unless they held a certain amount of property. Universal male suffrage had a foothold by 1820 and then broke through in 1828, when over 1.1 million voted (compared to 365,000 four years before). By 1840, some 90% of adult white men had the right to vote. But the last property qualification (in Rhode Island, I believe) lasted another ten years.

Religious tests that had been used to keep Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities from voting were also done away with in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

• Ironically, at the same time that less well-to-do white men got the vote, other Americans were losing it. For example, New Jersey abolished property restrictions in 1807 — and simultaneously took the franchise away from women (who, if propertied, had had the vote since 1776) and free blacks. One state north, New York added property qualifications for African-Americans at the same time that it took them away from Euro-Americans, in 1821, with the result that all but 68 of New York City’s 13,000 free black denizens were without a vote. While the 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870) established that U.S. citizens’ right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” by the end of that century a variety of states (most, but not all in the former Confederacy) had effectively blocked most African-Americans (and other minorities in some regions) from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures. Court challenges gradually removed some of these restrictions, but it wasn’t until the 1957 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Congress actually implemented the 15th Amendment on a national scale. (Also, in 1964 the 24th Amendment abolished poll taxes.)

Program for 1913 suffrage procession in Washington, DC
Library of Congress

Women began to vote in the Wyoming and Utah Territories in 1870, but it took another fifty years for the ratification of the 19th Amendment to extend the franchise to all adult women who were U.S. citizens. Later expansions of the franchise protected voting rights for Native Americans (through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924) and 18-21 year olds (the 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971 after taking a mere fourth months to make it through the requisite three-quarters of state legislatures), and legislation in the past twenty years has made voting more accessible to Americans with disabilities and those who do not speak English.

Arguably, voting in America remains limited — there are movements to expand voting rights for younger people, convicted felons, and residents of U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam. And there is an argument to be made that the recent spate of initiatives designed to combat supposed voter fraud serve to (and are perhaps meant to) suppress turnout among the poor, people of color, and the elderly.

Of course, the right to vote is exercised far less often than one might expect, given its difficult history. Since women received the vote in federal elections in 1920, turnout has been higher than 60% only seven times (peaking at 63.3% in 1952 and last clearing the three-fifths threshold in 1968) and lower than 55% six of the last ten presidential elections (bottoming out at 49% in 1996). (That’s all using percentages of the voting age population: VAP. If non-citizens and others ineligible to vote are removed, the turnout rate among the voting-eligible population — VEP — is somewhat higher: e.g., in 2008 the VAP turnout rate was 57%, but nearly five points higher using VEP.) It’s considerably lower for off-year elections: 39-41% of eligible voters since 2002. (See the United States Elections Project at George Mason University for more.)

Iraqi voter in 2010
An Iraqi woman after voting in 2010 – Creative Commons (DVIDSHUB)

Worldwide, almost every country technically has universal adult suffrage (some with lower voting ages than the United States). But according to Freedom House, about 40% of countries are not “electoral democracies” — based not only on the existence of universal adult suffrage, but how competitive and regular elections are, how freely voters can learn about candidates and parties through open campaigning and free media, and how little fraud there is at election time.

Countries not meeting those criteria:

Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Bhutan, Brunei, Burkina Faso, Burma, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, China, Congo (both), Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gabon, the Gambia, Georgia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, Turkmenistan, Uganda, UAE, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

(List derived from the full 2012 Freedom in the World report.)

That’s a list that includes the world’s largest country, three more in the top 10, almost all of Central Asia and the Middle East, and much of Africa and Southeast Asia. Altogether, over 3.1 billion people do not live under an electoral democracy.

So yes, much as I complain about the weather and the choices, consider me grateful for the right to vote today.


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