"Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.
Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.
Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a ‘Southern Manifesto’ because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.
Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.
Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s (Brown) decision of May seventeenth, 1954.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957
When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, it was meant to be a means by which the states ascribed powers to the federal government, but its first ten amendments -- the Bill of Rights -- defined limits on the federal government to enumerate constitutional protection for individual liberties. The principle of representation was an intensely argued one when the Constitution was drafted, most particularly in how slaves would be counted (as three-fifths of a person) in a federal census every ten years. In her book, These Truths, Jill Lepore notes “The most remarkable consequence of this remarkable arrangement was to grant slave states far greater representation in Congress than free states.” (125)
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865 at the end of the Civil War:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868, and explicitly defined American citizens:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”
The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, provided greater clarity that African Americans are citizens and eligible to vote:
“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 ofrace, color, or previous condition of servitude."
Though Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women suffragists had argued that women should be explicitly named as eligible to vote in the Fourteenth Amendment, it was not until 1920 that sex was called out in the Nineteenth Amendment:
“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 sex.”
Finally, in the midst of violence, chaos, and ongoing attempts to register African Americans voters in the South, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed–-eight years after Reverend King’s remarkable address – to enforce the fifteenth amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and to prohibit racial discrimination in voting.
Each of these amendments and the Voting Rights Act represent a great deal of hard work by fair-minded representatives to ensure that persons who are 18 years of age, U.S. citizens, and not convicted felons can vote in both local and national elections. States impose various requirements for those who register, and unreasonable requirements have been generally put to the judicial test. How districts are apportioned has also been subject to judicial test at the Supreme Court level.
Fast forward to 2016, and look at the numbers of citizens who voted in the presidential election. Only 58% of eligible voters went to the polls that year. Now we are looking at mid-term elections on November 6, elections that typically get even lower turnouts. We have seen laudable efforts – such as those by students at Stoneman Douglass High School who traveled the country this past summer – to mobilize young people to register and vote. However, ultimately it will come down to just how important citizens feel representation is right now.
Most of us are eligible voters, guaranteed the right to vote for our elected officials. To me, that right is also a responsibility, given the condition at this time of the three branches of government. Assembling peacefully to protest makes us feel part of a larger movement, and less alone – but exercising the power of your vote is the one single action you can take on November 6 to change how decisions are made that have enormous consequence over all our lives.
If you are not yet registered, there is still time in most states. You’re not in the same position as African Americans or women were for so many years. The ballot is yours for the taking: you have the ballot.
“Reprinted with permission from ASA News & Notes, October 8 2018 issue.”