Every Vote Counts!

If any lesson was learned from the 2000 presidential election, it is that voting is among the most fundamental and important rights of every American. The next time people are heard saying, “What does it matter? My vote doesn't mean anything,” they should be reminded of the Florida recount, which resulted in the presidency being decided by several hundred votes.

Looking Back

Voting is one of our most basic rights, and one of the easiest to perform. It is the bedrock of our republican democracy. Although today it is taken for granted that everyone has the right to vote, that has not always been the case.

The Founding Fathers created a government whereby the power to govern was established by the ballot box, not heredity — a revolutionary idea. At first, the right to vote extended only to white Protestant males who owned property. As a result, only 6 percent of the population was eligible to vote in the first presidential election.

One of the closest Congressional elections took place in 1994, when Democrat Sam Gejdenson defeated Republican Ed Munster by two votes to capture Connecticut's 2nd Congressional District. On recount, the victory margin increased to four votes, and after a second recount it widened to 21. Munster challenged Gejdenson in court, but dropped the suit the following April.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the right to vote (the franchise, as it's sometimes called) was slowly extended to a wider segment of the population. Religious and property-owning restrictions were the first to be eliminated. By the middle of the nineteenth century, all white males were allowed to vote.

Women remained disenfranchised until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which declared that voting could not be denied on the basis of gender. For African-Americans, it was a longer and more difficult struggle to obtain full franchisement. Following the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment established that the federal and state governments could not discriminate against voters on the basis of race, color, or the previous condition of slavery.

In theory, this should have given all African-Americans the right to vote. In reality, however, it did little to bring African-Americans into the electoral process, as southern states used various tactics — literacy tests, poll taxes, and even intimidation — to keep blacks away from the polls. As a consequence, well into the twentieth century only a small percentage of African-Americans living in southern states were able to vote. It wasn't until the Twenty-fourth Amendment of 1964 and the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all of these obstacles were removed.

In 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment was passed, which reduced the voting age from 21 to 18 years. The idea behind the amendment was that anyone old enough to bear arms for his country should be eligible to vote. This was one of the few positive repercussions of the Vietnam War.

Declining Voter Turnout

Although the right to vote is our most precious right, it has been exercised with declining frequency. At the presidential level, voter turnout has witnessed a steady erosion over the past 70 years, as fewer Americans have felt connected to the political process.

During the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, voter turnout regularly exceeded 60 percent of eligible voters. During the '70s and early '80s, the percentages dipped to the mid-fifties.

Today presidential elections receive a 50 percent voter turnout on average. In 1996, voter turnout dropped below 50 percent for the first time in history, no doubt caused in part by the lackluster campaign between President Clinton and Senator Bob Dole.

Voter turnout during “off-year” (or non-presidential) elections consistently averages approximately 35 percent of eligible voters, meaning that the fate of Congress is determined by only a third of the country. During primary elections, the number is even lower — in most cases, fewer than 10 percent of the eligible voters actually cast a ballot. This small band of primary voters tend to be fierce partisans and ideologically driven.

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