Voting: ‘reflection of the past,’ continuing to influence present

The “residual effects” of gaining equal voting rights for all demographics can still be seen today, according to South Dakota State University professors.

Lisa Hager, assistant professor of political science, said differences such as economic status or gender affect how someone votes. For example, women tend to be more supportive of candidates interested in improving education and social welfare, not necessarily in foreign policy.

“I think in general when you give people the right to vote, it changes the landscape of politics,” Hager said. 

But equal rights have not always been a privilege enjoyed by all, according to Laura Chandler, assistant professor of history.

“I think contrary to popular, triumphant myth-making about the history of the United States, the idea that everybody deserved to have a say and everybody deserved to get an input on the direction of the nation was never really a belief that the founding fathers had or that people in the early republic had,” Chandler said. “It was that there were certain people who had the right ideas and who had the ability to give input, and usually those people were white, they were male and they owned property.”

This meant poor whites, women, Native Americans and those enslaved were excluded from the voting system. 

“I love the form of government we have, I do think it was a brilliant creation, but I think that throughout the generations we have improved upon it by expanding the franchise by including the number of people that have the ability to give their input,” Chandler said. “We had to make it better, we had to make it more perfect.”

Chandler said that because America was “a nation founded on slavery,” African Americans were viewed as property, and women were “a commodity that was moved around between men.”

“I think that’s the reason people were excluded because they weren’t defined as citizens,” Chandler said. 

After the abolition of slavery in 1865, African-American men soon gained the right to vote in 1870, according to Cornell University. But women were still unable to vote and steps were taken to prevent African Americans from practicing their rights.

Though women’s suffrage was granted through the 19th amendment in 1920, the movement for women’s suffrage had roots in the abolitionist movement, Chandler said.

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton started out as abolitionist, and it was being involved in that movement and talking about rights and citizenship that they began to make connections between the exclusion of African Americans and experiences of women,” Chandler said.

After the eventual achievement of voting equality, the idea of African Americans or women gaining the right to vote did not sit well with everyone, Chandler said. 

“Not only did the south use things like literacy tests and poll taxes, they used violence and you see the emergence of the KKK (Klu Klux Klan) and white-nationalist organizations to make sure African Americans were too afraid to participate and exercise their rights as citizens,” Chandler said.

This ended during the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. 

Women’s suffrage also underwent a national division. Opposition and support was not limited to any gender. Chandler said some Americans, both men and women, worried if women gained the right to vote, it would “be the end of the republic,” and others argued the power women held in the home was greater than having power in the public realm.

Because voting equality was met with opposition, Chandler said the residual effects can still be seen today, and Hager agreed.

“We are lagging behind when it comes to how many women are in Congress, and we’ve never had a woman (president),” Hager said. “But other countries have, some in developing worlds.”

Chandler believes this is partly due to the initial opposition to African Americans and women having the ability to vote. 

“Everything that’s happening now is a reflection of the past, the past reverberates forward. I see that in everything that’s happening now … This is really the first time we have even gotten close (to having a female president),” Chandler said. “It has been very slow to happen. Our government was built that way.”

Despite the struggles to attain equal voting, there is still a significant amount of citizens who do not partake in voting. 

“One of the problems is there’s lots of times where people say ‘my vote doesn’t matter,’” Hager said. “You very rarely see one election coming down to one vote … but you could see if everyone voted it might go one way versus the other.”

Hager said people aren’t wrong when they say their individual vote probably doesn’t matter. But this isn’t to say that people should stop voting. When a large mass of people decides to not vote, that sum of people could potentially be enough to sway an election.