There has been so much written about this year’s election. All indications are it really is a pivotal event in this country’s future. How pivotal? I don’t believe any president should be judged until twenty years have passed, but where we go from here will be fascinating to watch.
Since we have been putting together this political system for over 230 years, I think some perspective is in order. One of the best summaries of how our election system has evolved is from The Writer’s Almanac of November 3, 2020 (https://www.spreaker.com/show/the-writers-almanac?). I’m reprinting most of it here —
The first federal election under the U.S. Constitution was held in 1788, and it had the lowest turnout in the history of American elections. Only 11 percent of eligible voters voted. To be eligible to vote at the time, you had to be a white male property owner. But different states had trouble defining what a property owner was.
In Pennsylvania, you just had to prove that you paid taxes. In New York, you had to prove that your estate was worth a certain amount of money. If your estate was greater than 20 pounds, you could vote for state assembly, but your estate had to be worth more than 100 pounds to vote for senator or governor. In Connecticut, you had to be a white male property owner “of a quiet and peaceable behavior and civil conversation.”
In order to vote in that first election, voters had to travel many miles to the nearest polling place, which was often a tavern. There they met the candidates for their district’s seat on the state assembly. In many precincts, there were no ballots. Voters announced their votes to the sheriff in loud, clear voices, and then stood by the candidate they had voted for, who usually offered them something to drink.
It wasn’t until 1820 that some American voters in every state were able to vote in the presidential election. Before that, many states simply let the state legislators choose presidential electors who cast votes for president. Even after voters began choosing presidential electors themselves, different states held Election Day on different dates. The first uniform Election Day took place on November 4, 1845.
For the first 50 years of American elections, only 15 percent of the adult population was eligible to vote. Thomas Dorr was one of the first politicians to argue that poor people should be given voting rights. As a member of the Rhode Island legislature, Dorr argued that all white adult men should have the vote, regardless of their wealth. He incited a riot to protest the governor’s election of 1842 and went to prison for treason, but most states began to let poor white men vote soon after. Women won the right to vote in 1920, and many African-Americans were prevented from voting throughout the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Widespread voter suppression still happens today, sometimes against specific groups or with specific political motivation.
John Quincy Adams said: “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”
Rosa Luxemburg said: “Without general elections, without unrestrained freedom of the press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution.”
Mark Twain said: “If there is any valuable difference between a monarchist and an American, it lies in the theory that the American can decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn’t. I claim that difference. I am the only person in the 60 millions that is privileged to dictate my patriotism.”