Voting. It is both a sacred right and profound responsibility. It is the symbol of a free and democratic society. It is the ultimate exercise of liberty.
And yet the history of voting in America is a long and complex one. There have been enormous changes in the American electoral process since the Victorian era, but one thing has remained the same: the ballot as the cornerstone of the American ideal.
For My Eyes Only?
One of the biggest changes in the American voting system since the Victorian age is the emergence of the idea of the private ballot. For most of early American history, voting was a much-publicized process. It evolved from vocal votes in the Revolutionary era to public, signature-based ballots.
By the late Victorian era, though, an aura of sacred privacy had come to surround the vote. A man’s ballot — and in this era, it was still only a man’s ballot — was his business alone. His right to his ballot was as inviolate as his right to the other core Constitutional freedoms: life, liberty, property.
Indeed, his vote was his way of guaranteeing these fundamental freedoms. It was his ticket to the pursuit of happiness. And it was shrouded in the same reverential secrecy of the personal home or the marital bed.
This idea of the ballot as both the guarantee and the exercise of a man’s Constitutionally-protected rights, of course, didn’t exactly sit well with all those who were denied the same privilege. For modern women, the idea of a woman having the right to vote is a no-brainer. It’s so obvious it seems unnecessary to even have to state it outright.
But for the Victorians, things weren’t nearly so easy or so obvious. The Victorian girl’s ultimate goal in life, the one toward which she would be working from the moment she drew her first breath, was to marry well and start a home and family of her own.
Once that was done, well, she was pretty much set — at least as far as any kind of public or civic life was concerned. For the typical Victorian household, shaped by traditional ideals, the man’s political voice was the voice of his household, of which he was the head. And that meant that when a man voted, he voted for his wife and his children.
To enfranchise his wife, daughter, sister, mother, or aunt was to invite potential discord within the Victorian home. It was to sow division in what should be a cohesive, harmonious unit, the men operating in their given sphere (public life) and women operating in theirs (private life).
But while the separate spheres doctrine might sound all idyllic in theory, the reality was far darker. Women’s political disenfranchisement had often devastating consequences, essentially making them “non-persons” in the eyes of the law. That meant that they faced severe restrictions in everything from accessing education to owning property and even to retaining custody of their children in the event of a divorce.
This was the political environment in which American women of the Victorian era began to fight for their right to vote. The struggle for women’s suffrage was a long and hard one, beginning in 1848 with the Seneca Fall Convention and ending in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Not So Fast
As revolutionary as the granting of women’s suffrage might have been in American political history, we still had a long way to go in 1920. Racial minorities and the poor were routinely denied their right to vote, and states came up with myriad dirty tricks to make that happen.
In the Jim Crow south, for example, tactics such as literacy tests, “poll taxes” and property tests, and grandfather clauses were used to restrict the vote largely to middle and upper-class whites. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act was ratified in 1965 that these exclusionary practices were formally outlawed.
But agitation for the extension of voting rights to all adult American citizens did not end there. Until 1971 and the enactment of the 26th Amendment, the national voting age had been 21. That was problematic, given that for decades, men as young as 18 were being sent to fight and die in America’s wars, with tens of thousands still being drafted to serve in Vietnam at that time.
The national enfranchisement of 18-year-olds allowed America’s young soldiers and veterans to have a voice in the government they were putting their lives on the line for. And this helped them shape the policies that would shape their lives both during and after service, such as policies related to GI housing, education, employment, and healthcare.
The vote is perhaps the most iconic symbol of a free society. But even in a nation founded on liberty, this fundamental human right has not been easily or quickly won. Women, minorities, the poor, and the young have had to fight for their place in our political system, for the right to have a voice and to exercise the liberty that, today, too many of us take for granted.