On October 4th 2012, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave a speech to the Department of Defense about the importance of voting. Although Panetta made the speech to remind soldiers to turn in absentee ballots if they are stationed overseas, Panetta’s message was about how important voting is to the United States.
The act of voting has been a time-honored tradition across human culture. Representative democracy is the established government structure of the United States, allowing citizens to vote for members of their local, state, or the federal legislative and executive branches. As a result, every policy engaged by the government, from economic to foreign to domestic, is influenced by how the constituents of a Representative or Senator and the President (all citizens) demand. However, voting in the United States did not always represent the full will of the people.
Early Voting in the United States
When the United States government became actualized with the Constitution, only white males with property over the age of 21 could vote. This allowed a minority and aristocratic class of individuals the ability to shape how the country would be governed. The first suffrage movement began in the early 19th century, when politicians and many citizens demanded that property-ownership not be a requirement to vote. Since property-ownership clauses were on the state-level, many states began to throw out those requirements for voting, allowing all white men over 21 the ability to vote on local, state, and federal elections. However, women and African Americans were not allowed to vote.
Civil War, Reconstruction Amendments, and Jim Crow
After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth) ended slavery, made universal citizenship for anyone born in the United States, empowered all citizens due process and equal protection under the law, and allowed all males the right to vote regardless of their race or color. In theory, the Amendments empowered all former slaves, however, many states imposed various laws, known as Jim Crow Laws, that would make certain people ineligible to vote. Laws like poll taxes and literacy tests made voting onerous to impossible for several generations of voters, particularly African American citizens who were not empowered economically or academically because of institutional racism in various states and counties.
20th Century Progress
While these inequalities of access remained, progress with women came forth with the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The Civil Rights era in the 1960s helped usher in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which helped end many Jim Crow Laws and empowered voters through the Executive Branch enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment. The last suffrage amendment to be passed by the United States was Twenty-ninth Amendment, which allowed voters over the age of 18 to vote.
What Do Voter Trends Say?
With such empowerment and enfranchisement, one would hope more citizens are voting today than ever. Unfortunately, data seems to show many people who are eligible to vote do not vote. The U.S. Census reported that in 1996, a low of 58.4 percent of the voting age population voted. In 2012, the results were better at 61.8 percent of the voting age population, but figures vary depending on what part of the population one studies. For example, in 2012, 45 percent of 18 to 29 year old citizens who were eligible to vote voted. This is a huge voting bloc where less than half is voting; about 46 million eligible voters are 18 to 29 year old citizens (or about 21 percent the entire voting age population), compared to 39 million eligible senior citizens.
Another realm that is somber demographically includes the income levels of voters. A recent study showed that 86 percent of those with incomes of $75,000 a year or higher vote in all presidential election years. In contrast, only 52 percent of people with incomes under $15,000 a year vote in such elections. However, a more positive note was seen with minority voters (African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans). Combined, these groups make up 37 percent of the entire population, but 28 percent of all votes cast in the 2012 came from these groups. Women have also been an important population with voting. In 2008, 52 percent of all women who were eligible to vote voted, while only 45 percent of all men who were eligible did.
Voting Allows An Opinion To Be Heard
Citizens, particularly young people, need to understand that voting is the most important way one can make their opinion heard. The years shown were presidential years, which tend to have the highest population of voters voting. However, mid-term and special elections can decide the make-up of the Congress and state or local elections have results that can hit very close to home for voters. Voters may feel disengaged from politics or sick of how the government, state or federal, operates. But, as the history of the country shows, many people demanded and fought for their enfranchisement to vote so they could have their voice represented. Like soldiers being reminded why they are fighting for the United States, all citizens should try to vote every opportunity they can to enjoy their hard-fought for freedom.
Benjamin Dickinson is a freelance writer who focuses on voting, polls, political trends, surveys, paid surveys nz, demographic research and other kindred topics.