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 three million populace of the thirteen colonies—white, male property owners—could participate in the first elections. African Americans, Native Americans, and women, as well as Catholics and Jews, were among those excluded.
Since then, victories to expand suffrage and protect the right to vote have been hard-won. It took the Civil War, constitutional amendments, landmark legislation like the 1965 Voting Rights Act, court battles, political activism, and federal enforcement to rid the our voting 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 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.