With the 2020 election year approaching, it’s hard not to feel apathetic and overwhelmed. Abstaining from political conversation and turning off news notifications has become a form of self-care. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a little more than half of Americans cast a ballot in 2018, which sadly was the highest turnout rate in decades for a midterm election.
Many Americans are still disappointed with the state of politics, however, and feel unheard and underrepresented in our “representative democracy.” According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018, the volatility of the political climate and unappealing candidates were some of the most cited deterrents. These feelings of frustration and hopelessness are not unfounded. Despite claiming to champion democracy and the importance of voting, the United States’ history of systemic voter suppression has kept the nation from being representative. Voting is powerful, and yes, your voice really does matter — but the right to vote has historically been kept out of some people’s hands. This has created a system that oftentimes only serves the powerful and the privileged. Thus, everyone who does have the right to vote must exercise it, so the system can truly serve all Americans.
By 1776 standards, most of the United States would be ineligible to vote, especially people of color. Originally, voting was only intended for land-owning white men. KQED News calculated that only 6% of the population could vote in George Washington’s first election. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1850s that all white men were able to vote. Women only got the right to vote in 1920. Black citizens were prevented from voting until 1868 because of Jim Crow laws that prevented a majority of Black people from exercising that right for a century. Latinx people suffered from similar discrimination practices that undermined their right to vote as well.
Other minority groups were prevented from being citizens and thus were denied the right to vote, inhibiting their ability to have a political voice and identity. Native people only became eligible for citizenship in 1924 but continued to face legal restrictions to voting into the 1940s. In the 1880s, Asian Americans were explicitly barred from immigrating, and it wasn’t until 1952 that Asian Americans could become citizens and voters.
For most of our nation’s history, people of color have been repeatedly targeted and systematically attacked on their political rights, which has diminished their access to the ballot box. Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which guaranteed the right to vote to all Americans, regardless of race and ethnicity — people of color still face voter suppression through laws that impose identification requirements and disenfranchisement practices for people with felony convictions. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 25% of Black citizens do not have one of the approved forms of identification, compared to only 8% of white citizens. Obtaining a form of identification is cumbersome. It often requires fees, an advanced appointment, multiple documents and taking time off from work, effectively preventing eligible voters from casting a ballot.
Similarly, the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions disproportionately affects Black citizens — 2.2 million Black citizens cannot vote, which is four times the sum of all other races combined. In many states, this can mean permanent disenfranchisement, regardless of the severity of the crime. Other states restrict voting even while on parole or having outstanding fines. This revokes the right to vote for a significant part of the Black citizens population, as well as the American population as a whole.
This history of suppression affects all of us. How can we claim to be “by the people, for the people” if all “the people” aren’t heard? How can we fix the issues we see in our communities without a voice? Our history repeatedly demonstrates the importance of voting, and why those of us who have the right to vote must do so. We all need to vote. We can’t afford to be apathetic. Voting is the only way we can have a direct impact on legislation and decide who’s in office. We cannot become complacent or we risk losing our right to the ballot box. There was a long and arduous struggle to get us where we are today, and we cannot forget that. Voting is neither easy nor fun. Often, it’s inconvenient and time-consuming, but we owe it to ourselves, our history and our future to speak up. Your voice can only be heard if you use it.
In our country, voting is a right, but it has historically been treated as a privilege. I vote because our democracy depends on it. I vote because thousands of men and women have fought so I could have this right. I vote because thousands of men and women fought so I could not have this right. I vote because there are many who still can’t. I vote for myself. I vote for the United States. I vote because I can. See you at the polls.
Rachel Sondkar is a UC Berkeley senior studying political economy. She is an Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere Ambassador and voter education manager in the ASUC EAVP Vote Coalition.