by Anita Dellaria
Elementary and Middle School Programs Manager at CRFC
“[I]f we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote.” – Frederick Douglass
“Suffrage is the pivotal right.” – Susan B. Anthony
“[Young people] possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world, and are anxious to rectify those ills.” – Senator Jennings Randolph
In part, Congress’ purpose in designating May 1st as Law Day was, “the reaffirmation of [our] rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law.” Carved beneath the pediment of the Supreme Court Building, the promise of “equal justice under law” paraphrases the words of the 14th Amendment that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Yet, as permanent as these words appear, written into law and carved into stone, they are not so powerful that they can’t be defeated by apathy and bigotry. In celebration of Law Day and in commemoration of these ideals and their fragility, this year’s theme is “The Rule of Law in American Democracy: Why Every Vote Matters.”
Since we frequently take our enfranchisement for granted, it’s useful to remind ourselves that not long ago far fewer voices had a say in defining what “equality” and “justice” looks like. We may think, from the vantage point of 2014, that all the important battles have been fought and won, but in doing so, we forget that the work to perfect these ideals will never be complete. The irony is that the way to work toward perfecting equality and justice for all under the law is to vote for those who write and execute the laws. And, the only way to vote for those who write and carry-out the laws is to have the right to vote in the first place. It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg dilemma.
Imagine you don’t own land, or are a slave, or black, or a woman, or under 21. How do you, through your own voice and agency, remove from office the people whose voices have silenced yours? I guess you have to convince those with the right to vote that they will benefit from your being able to vote too. And that’s just what folks did. By the mid-nineteenth century, male suffrage was nearly universal, if you were white. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited disenfranchisement on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” unless you were a woman. The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, extended the franchise to women, unless you were under 21. Then, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” summed up the movement leading to the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, extending the franchise, once again, to those 18 years of age and older.
But, the right to vote has not always been in step with one’s ability to go to the polling place and cast a ballot without having to overcome obstacles, like paying a poll tax or passing a literacy test. Next year we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whose passage was necessary to enforce the provisions of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Whether it’s voter ID’s, motor-voter registration, early voting, absentee ballots, electronic ballots, ballots for ex-felons, or registering 17 year-olds as did Illinois, the struggle to perfect those ideals continues.
In celebration of this “most pivotal right,” why not read the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments? Each comprises only two sentences, itself a lesson in the power of the rule of law. Six sentences and a mere 113 words enfranchised millions of United States citizens. Indeed, every vote matters because they’re the only ones that are counted.