At its birth, “the United States was not a democratic nation – far from it,” Harvard University historian Alexander Keyssar has written, noting that only a small fraction of the 3 million population of the thirteen colonies - white male property owners – could participate in the first elections. African Americans, Native Americans, women, as well as Catholics and Jews were among those excluded.
Over the next centuries there was a continuing struggle to expand suffrage and protect the right to vote. By the end of the Civil War, black men could vote, and in 1920 women won suffrage. In 1971, the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18 from 21, bringing a younger generation in turmoil over the Vietnam War into the electoral process for the first time.
These achievements were hard won, with the nation often whipsawing between enfranchisement, disenfranchisement and re-enfranchisement. “Our history makes plain that the right to vote can be as fragile as it is fundamental,” Keyssar has written. Indeed, it took a civil war, constitutional amendments, landmark legislation like the 1965 Voting Rights Act, court battles, political activism and federal enforcement to rid the laws of exclusions and restrictions and secure voting rights for all.
That struggle is far from over.
The overturning by the Supreme Court of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a wave of voter suppression laws, egregious partisan gerrymandering, and an increasingly indifferent electorate pose significant challenges to voting rights in the 21st century. As Ari Berman wrote in “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” voting rights should be the most settled right in American democracy but in fact they remain “the most contested.”
Today, everyone has the right to vote because of the sacrifices and efforts of those who fought those battles. As the inheritors of those accomplishments, we owe them an obligation.
Every Vote Counts was founded to advance voting rights and modernize the electoral process so that our democracy can function as it was intended – with all eligible citizens afforded easy access to registration and voting and election systems that fulfill the ideals of America’s representative democracy.