This week marked an anniversary of sorts. A voting anniversary. On Nov. 5, 1872, women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony voted in a presidential election. Along with 15 other women, she voted for the incumbent, Republican Ulysses S. Grant.
Back then, women were not allowed to vote. A few weeks later, Anthony and the other women were arrested. Anthony was eventually fined $100 for voting illegally. “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty,” she boldly stated, “And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women... that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
Voting in the United States has an interesting history. But not a pretty one.
Originally, The United States Constitution did not define who could vote, allowing states to determine guidelines of eligibility. Generally, to be allowed to vote a person had to be a free, adult, male resident of his county, and a landowner who owned land worth a certain amount of money.
Only land holders were believed by the colonists to have a permanent stake in the stability of society. Property owners also paid most of the taxes. Other persons, as the famous English lawyer William Blackstone put it, “are in so mean a situation as to be esteemed to have no will of their own.”
There were even cases of voter fraud. Back then, some men would be granted land deeds for the day so that they appeared to be eligible to vote. The liars would return the deeds to whoever had issued them at the end of the day and pick up their pay for swaying the vote.
In 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment. We were told citizens should be allowed to vote without regard to race, color or prior history of slavery, stating: The right of citizens of the United States 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.
The enforcement of the Amendment was not consistent. Some states allowed black men to vote, others did not. As a rule, Southern states suppressed the black vote through intimidation and various other measures — such as poll taxes and literacy tests.
But at least those black citizens (male ones anyway) could vote. Women didn’t win the vote in the United States until 1920. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified when Tennessee approved the measure by one vote, becoming the 36th state to pass it.
In the following decades, other groups — such as Native Americans in 1957 — gained their voting rights. More progress followed when in 1964 the Twenty-fourth Amendment was adopted, prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act banned any effort to deny voting rights, such as literacy tests.
At last everyone could vote. But did they?
Unfortunately, after centuries of fighting for the vote a new enemy emerged on the voting scene. This enemy robbed white men, black men, and women alike of all races of their right to vote. As a nation we have not been able to successfully legislate against this adversary of voting.
We just can’t get agreed upon the amendment that would redress this problem. I wonder if the lawyer Blackstone is right. We appear to have some citizens who “are in so mean a situation as to be esteemed to have no will of their own.” No will to vote that is.
Apathy is the worst enemy of the vote that we have. This enemy removes many more than poll tax, voter fraud, literacy tests or other unfair barriers to voting ever have.
Estimates show more than 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls during the 2016 election. In the last midterm election — 2014 — only slightly over 36 percent of the voting eligible population voted. That’s the lowest percentage turnout in more than 70 years. In 36 states, turnout went down from where it was in 2010.
We are talking a good game but are we using the vote that so many fought for? If Susan B. Anthony was right, we’d better get busy and follow her example to vote no matter how difficult it is.
She didn’t let anything stop her. Nor should we.
Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.