“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”—President Franklin D. Roosevelt
The right to vote has thankfully become deeply ingrained in our American psyche as an assumed right, one that is owed to us as citizens of this great nation.
But it is important to recall that it wasn’t always this way. We must be vigilant to ensure that voters from all backgrounds and geographic areas have equal access to casting their vote.
For many, the right to vote was withheld for decades, and some new laws are making it nearly impossible for some people to access the polls. While we must work to strike down these voter-suppression laws that disproportionately impact voters of color, poor voters and young voters, here are a few considerations on why the right to vote is one we must never take for granted:
While Black men were given voting rights in 1870, Black women were still banned from voting in some places until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, this historic act outlawed the discriminatory voting practices that had been adopted in many Southern states after the Civil War, such as literacy tests. Other obstacles included poll taxes—imagine having to pay to receive your ballot!—and even a “white primary,” in which only white people could participate. If you’ve ever used or heard the term “grandfathered in,” it refers to the “grandfather clause” some states used to prevent descendants of slaves from voting, until the Supreme Court invalidated it in 1915. Black men were not allowed to vote unless their grandfather had voted—an impossibility for people whose ancestors were enslaved.
In 1788, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Native Americans were not considered citizens. Even when African Americans were guaranteed citizenship in 1868, the 14th Amendment was interpreted to exclude Native Americans. In 1948, the Arizona Supreme Court recognized the legal right of Native Americans to vote. Finally, by 1957 all states had removed laws denying Native Americans the right to vote. However, some states continued to suppress their votes and those of other minority groups through discriminatory practices like literacy tests. Today, new laws make it difficult for voters in rural areas to vote by implementing strict voter ID requirements (Native Americans often don’t have traditional street addresses) and by placing drop boxes and election offices long distances from reservations–sometimes nearly 300 miles roundtrip.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
While our state has some of the most luxurious homes and resorts in the world, approximately 21 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in Hawai‘i live in poverty. Another 6 percent lack health insurance, and 14 percent lack access to broadband connectivity. And 44 percent of Asian Americans in Hawai‘i speak a language other than English at home, and 25 percent have limited proficiency in English. Thus, language challenges, a lack of access to online education and even a lack of health care can all contribute to voting barriers for some of our constituents with the most diverse sets of needs.
Woman’s suffrage advocates first started protesting and lobbying in the 1800s for their cause. A constitutional amendment was introduced in Congress in 1878, but it was not ratified until 1920. It took decades of dedicated voices rallying to achieve this success, through a wide variety of protests and court cases, including hunger strikes, picketing, silent vigils and lawsuits challenging male-only voting laws. Many supporters were heckled, abused and even jailed for fighting for a woman’s right to vote.
The struggles for many to obtain or retain the right to vote increase the value of our right to express our choice at the ballot box. To not vote is to allow others to make that choice for you.
But in our democratic system, choosing not to vote is an equally valid decision. All we can ask is to consider your choices and to vote thoughtfully if you decide to exercise your right to cast a ballot.