column logo

Early voting begins today where I live. That makes a vote column timely.

Our Constitution gives states the power to set voting requirements. Originally, states limited the franchise to property-owning white males, then only about 6% of the population. Most states abolished property qualifications between 1792–1856, which created universal white male suffrage. In consequence, election turnout soared to 70-80% as poor white males became eligible to vote.

After the Civil War, the 1868 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all males born or naturalized in the United States, and the 1870 15th Amendment prevented states from denying the right to vote on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

These were meant to enfranchise former male Black slaves. However, in practice, white supremacy enacted state laws to prevent that.

The next voting rights expansion was in 1920. After decades of marches, demonstrations, protests, arrests and imprisonments, the 19th Amendment gave women the vote — in practice mostly white women.

Lesser known voting rights were the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act extending citizenship, and the vote, to the one-third of Native Americans not already citizens; the 1943 Magnuson Act giving citizenship, and the vote, to Chinese immigrants; and the 1961 23rd Amendment granting Washington, D.C., residents the right to vote in presidential elections.

Two others were the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which ensured states gave Blacks the right to vote, and the 1971 26th Amendment, which gave the vote to adults aged 18 through 21. It was enacted in response to massive Vietnam War protests, during which it was argued that soldiers who were old enough to fight for their country should be able to vote.

What does the modern electorate look like? A lot less white for one thing. Between 2000 and 2018, the share of white voters declined in all 50 states, with double-digit drops in 10 states to today’s 67% of eligible voters. At the same time, from 2000 to 2018, eligible voter population grew by 43 million. Hispanic, Black, Asian and other ethnicities were more than three-quarters of this growth. That growth included 23 million new naturalized citizens over the past 20 years, up almost 100% since 2000, and now one-in-ten of all eligible voters.

Who votes at a higher percentage, although not in higher numbers, than others among all citizens? A long history of research proves it is people with more education, more income, more years, more married, and female.

After all those facts, the fact is election turnout in our country is abysmal. Not just recently, but historically.

The first presidential election for which there is data was 1828. Only 57% of the voting eligible population did. In 1832 only 55% voted. That was the lowest until 1924 and 1996, when a mere 49% made it to the polls. The highest were between 1840 and 1900, when 70-80% regularly voted in presidential elections. Over the past several decades, the average has been around 57% of the voting eligible population for presidential elections. It rose slightly to 61% in 2016. If the past is a predictor of the present, a proposition history teaches is fraught with peril, this year about 40% of eligible voters will have more important things to do.

Preserve our democratic republic of today for our posterity of tomorrow: Vote. However you choose to do it — by mail, early or on Nov. 3 — vote.

Steve Wintermute is a journalist and history student. Contact him at stevewintermute1@gmail.com.