This fall, Earth Fed Muscle is supporting Make Time To Vote -- an organization dedicated to creating a network of employers who pledge to make time for their employees to vote on Election Day. While most nations around the world create a holiday for election day or hold elections on the weekend, the U.S. doesn’t make these accommodations. This means employer cooperation is an important consideration for voter turnout. While this country was founded on words that expressed democratic ideals, the story of voting rights in this country is one of a series of expansions and--frequently violent--retractions. That tug-of-war continues to this day, and its importance is more evident than ever before.
The basis for American government came from the Enlightenment--a school of thought beginning in the late 17th century with John Locke. In a time of monarchical dominance in Western Europe, Locke argued that the right to govern should come from the governed, not some ethereal “divine right”. Locke also held that, should the government no longer reflect the will of the people, the people have a right to revolt and overthrow the government. This became the ideological basis for a number of the great Western revolutions of the late 18th century, and particularly the American Revolution. One of the themes of Enlightenment thinking is Modernization, which effectively meant a turn away from Absolutist rule and toward governance grounded in reason and science. The French Philosophe Rousseau argued during the tumultuous lead up to the American Revolution that citizens of a nation should have a say in their government, the laws of their government, and who enforces the laws(1). These thinkers, and many future American leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, molded the representative basis of American government.
With the development of popular governance came the idea of voting for leaders. The framers of the United States Constitution held a very narrow view of who should qualify as a voter. John Adams and James Madison, for example, both held that universal voting rights would lead to tumultuous “mob rule”. Madison, in particular, feared “popular passion” would disrupt the workings of representatives in government(1). The consensus at the time was that political power should move from Monarchs to “the People”, a narrow section of society primarily composed of the educated elite. The “Masses” of uneducated, middle- and lower-class individuals simply couldn’t be trusted with political power. As such, the framers of the American form of democratic government took numerous purposeful steps to limit the scope and power of the voting Citizen. The irony of a group of anti-monarchists believing in their own divine ruling power is apparent, and this sentiment is the foundation for voter disenfranchisement today.
Limits on political participation were structured into American government as it existed in 1787. The separation of the legislative branch of government into a House of Representatives (selected by those who held the franchise) and a Senate (nominated by their individual state’s legislature) was meant, in part, to prevent Congress from being overwhelmed by the will of the people at large. United States Senators wouldn’t be directly voted on by the people until 1913, meaning that, functionally, half of Congress wasn’t truly representative for the first 124 years of the United States’ existence(2).
The establishment of the Electoral College via the Constitution represents another attempt to distance American governance from the will of the people. The Federalist Papers--a series of anonymous papers written in support of the Constitution by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton--saw the Electoral College as a way to prevent “factions” from undermining the best interests of the People(3). Even individual states, which reserved Constitutional authority to determine who had the right to vote, generally agreed that political participants needed to be white, land owning males over the age of 21. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, this voting body comprised about 6% of the population of the newly formed nation(4).
The attitudes of the founders and the institutions they created have formed a history of voting in this country that treats voting as completely necessary to the functioning of our government, and yet something that is not and should not be available to all people. This dissonance resonates throughout American history in specific groups’ efforts to gain the franchise, and the subsequent backlash from those who already held political power--typically wealthy white men. Though there are many problems facing our nation currently, the lack of truly representative government is one of the most serious.
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