Mark S. Ryan
Professor John Minbiole
29 October 2012
The Power of Your Vote
The most basic definition of a democratic system of government is a government that is “by the people” (Oxford English Dictionary). It is a government that does not make the needs of one person a higher priority than another, and is a government that gives every subject an equal voice in the policy making process. In order for any government to be democratic, one must discuss the most fundamental aspect of any democracy: the vote. The vote is the most powerful tool of the common man in a democratic government and is the driving force behind every government action, policy and regulation. Voting is not just a right or a privilege; it is the basis of the American identity. Without the vote, the pillars of democracy vanish and the palace of democracy comes crashing down. But has the high and mighty United States Constitution always promoted true democracy? Does it today? Over the last century, the United States Constitution has changed to allow more power to voters and to put more emphasis on democracy. This mirrors the ever-increasing desire for personal influence on government in American culture and exemplifies the American desire for individual expression.
This country was founded on the principals of democracy and freedom, but its original constitution did not entirely reflect those ideals. The first elections in the country were exclusive to only white, male, protestant citizens. Most polling places required these males to also own some type of land to prove that they were responsible enough to vote. It is easy for a person of modern cultural beliefs to realize that this principle of restricting voting rights as morally wrong and undemocratic. However, it was not until relatively recently that the American society believed in equal voting power. Prime examples of this contemporary shift include both the women’s and civil rights movements.
It is well-known that female and non-white citizens of the United States were not always given the opportunity to vote in elections. The struggle for these groups to gain suffrage was not easy, but ultimately a success in expanding the power of the vote for United States citizens. The first landmark in these voting rights struggles comes with the ratification of the 15th amendment of the Constitution in 1870 that stated “The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (“Transcript of United States Constitution…”). This amendment seems straightforward enough, but individual States found ways to limit non-whites from voting in forms of poll taxes and literacy exams that would endure for another century (“15th Amendment to the Consitution”). It wouldn’t be until the mid-20th century that these roadblocks would be cleared and people of all races could finally vote. The women’s suffrage movement was difficult as well and finally resolved in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment that stated, “The right of citizens in the United States shall not be denied…on account of sex” (“Transcript of United States Constitution…”). The passage of these laws and regulations is significant in the expansion of democracy and voting power in the United States. In the course of several decades, the electorate of this country expanded from exclusively white males to any person above the age requirement to vote. This was a colossal aspect of the increased power to vote in the United States, but not the only case.
What is less well-known is the progressive era election reforms that took place in the early part of the 20th century (in the midst of the aforementioned expansion of voting rights) mainly in respect to senatorial and party primary elections. The original constitution of the United States had the upper assembly of congress composed of two senators from each State to be appointed by the State legislatures. This was an attempt to have State legislatures “cement their tie to the national government” so that the States would support the national government more (“Direct Election of Senators”). The framers of the constitution wanted to have a body of congress that was actually more removed from the people of the country that served long terms in order for congress to be productive. This productivity came at the expense of democracy by removing the people from the policymaking process. The seventeenth amendment to the Constitution reversed this and since 1913, the public can vote for their senators (“Direct Election of Senators”).
Primary elections in the United States before the mid-1920s never existed much like senatorial elections didn’t exist before 1913. The candidates in each party to run for office were not directly elected by the people of the party, rather they were simply nominated by party leaders at conventions. The people of the party did not have a say on who their party puts up for the election like they do today. A movement started that put pressure on political parties to allow the people to have more say in their nominating process and by 1926, many nominations for political office were decided by primary elections (“The Future of the Direct Primary”). This new process of direct voting was “established for the purpose of giving the people the right to say who shall be nominees for public office. The convention system, on the other hand, takes out of the hands of the people the selection of candidates and gives it to a few persons.” (“The Future of the Direct Primary”). The direct primary is more evidence of the shift toward more democracy and increased power of the American voter.
Before any of these radical changes in election and voting rights, the public of the United States was expected to conform to the values of others. Before women were allowed to vote, they were simply expected to accept the government that men had created for them. Before non-white citizens were allowed to vote, they were expected to conform to what the white voters believed in. Before the public could vote for their own senators or nominees, it was simply expected to accept the candidates and senators that more influential people selected. All of the changes in voting rights and all of the election reforms over the last century have one main principle in common: they allow more people to voice their opinion and vote on more issues. It is this underlying value of self-expression in the United States that is in a state of change.
Today we see a whole different political world that is full of self-expression and individual beliefs, past the days of conformity and acceptance. This change is evident by the trend in party identification over the last century. It used to be that most people identified with a certain political party and always voted for the candidate or issue that the party platform supported. The number of true independents who did not conform to either set of political ideologies used to be relatively small. In 1945, the proportion of people in the United States that identified themselves as independents was only 15%. This number has steadily increased to 31% in 1988 and is up to 38% today (“Trend in Party Identification”).
The public’s need to stop conformity and its need for self-expression strongly correlate. As we have seen a decrease in political party conformity in the U.S., we have also seen a strong increase in self-expressionism movements. From the emergence of political movements such as the gay rights and disability rights movements, to new cultural developments in green energy or global awareness, the country is being flooded with changes that reflect the desire for self-expression. All of these new progressive movements are by-products of the increased importance our culture places on individualism that was catalyzed by and reflected in the increase in voter power of the early 20th century.
These changes in the voting system of the United States with respect to universal suffrage and voting power are reflective of American society’s constantly growing need for individual political expression. Individualism is a concept that blankets the United States, and the political realm is not immune. The days of accepting what the government decides for citizens are over. The days of conforming to a preset list of ideals are done. The days of accepting someone else’s political beliefs as your own are through. Its been apparent since the birth of our country that the need for true American democracy would never dissipate, and although it has never been fully achieved, the desire for true democracy has exploded over the last century and shows no signs of slowing down today.
“15th Amendment to the Constitution.” 15th Amendment to the Constitution: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress). Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.
“Democracy.” Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.
“Direct Election of Senators.” U.S. Senate. Senate Historical Office, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.
“The future of the direct primary”. (1926). Editorial research reports 1926 (Vol. III). Washington, DC: CQ Press.
“Transcript of the Constitution of the United States – Official Text.” Transcript of the Constitution of the United States. The Charters of Freedom, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.
“Trend in Party Identification.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.