Voting Is a Big Deal
Most of us probably never think about what an amazing thing it is that virtually all adults in our country have the right to vote in elections every year. Did you know that women didn’t have the right to vote in the United States until 1920? (With the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.) That means that for the first 140 years of our nation’s history only men could vote. But that didn’t mean ALL men could vote. Starting back in colonial days, many states had conditions attached to the right to vote. The main one was the requirement for men to own property, which meant that less than 10% of the population was eligible to vote. By the 1850s, those property requirements were dropped, so most white men could vote, but blacks and other minorities were not allowed to vote. In 1870, after the Civil War, the 15th Amendment made it illegal to prevent people from voting based on race or whether they were former slaves. Slowly, the right to vote was expanding to everyone, but you might be surprised at how diligently people worked to keep anyone they deemed unworthy from exercising their right to vote. States had poll taxes (you had to pay a tax to vote, discouraging poorer people from voting), or they had literacy requirements (you had to be able to read your ballot). The 24th Amendment in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were needed to eliminate poll taxes (which had largely been used to keep black people from voting).
Today, anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to vote (with few exceptions), but voter turnout in US elections is low compared to other developed countries. In the 2016 presidential election, about 56% of the voting-age population voted. And that’s in a presidential election year! In the midterm elections (non-presidential federal elections), turnout is often even lower (though 2018 was higher than expected at 53%). After all the trouble so many people went through in our history to win the right to vote for everyone over 18, it’s shocking that only a little over half of us take advantage of that right. Voting is the main way you get to participate in government. For most of us, casting a vote is the only way we ever get to be involved.
This year is an odd-numbered year, meaning there are no federal elections, just local elections. That might not seem like a big deal, so some of the half of us who might vote in a federal election might be tempted to ignore our ballots. But remember that local elections are the ones that affect you the most! The decisions made by your city and county councils, mayors, or county executives may impact you more directly than any decision made in Washington, D.C. So don’t ignore your ballot this year. Your right to vote is a big deal.