The Voting Rights Act Turns 53

August 6th marks the anniversary of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. In a lecture last week, Making Every Vote Count board member Professor Richard Tedlow made these timely remarks on the status of voting in America today: 

"After so much effort has been expended to enlarge the franchise – given that WEB Du Bois described the ballot as a 'visible sign of freedom' for Blacks, and that Elizabeth Cady Stanton had called it an 'inalienable right for women'—why has the participation of people with the right to vote been so low in the United States? From 1912 to 2016, turnout in presidential years as a percentage of voting age population varied from a high of 62.9 to a low of 49 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. ranked 26th out of 32 in the most recent national election among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations. 

Why, with so much historically at stake, do so few people vote in the United States? Voter participation rates were high in the nineteenth century, peaking at 81.2 percent in 1860 and 81.8 percent in 1876. These were both hotly contested elections. The outcomes would have immediate consequences. In 1968, the racist George Wallace ran as a third party candidate for the presidency, making famous his slogan that 'There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties.' No one would have said that in 1860 or 1876. Moreover, the voting participation and the whole nature of campaigning had changed between say, 1876 and 1976.

It is at best possible that one reason people today in the U.S. don’t vote is because they feel their vote does not matter. Why would they feel this?

Because in presidential elections, unless they live in a handful of swing precincts in a handful of states, it doesn’t. They are correct.

What renders the vote meaningless outside the swing states is the Electoral College. Government, according to the Declaration of Independence, derives its just powers from the "consent of the governed."

Citizens do not elect the President. Electors do. Who are these Electors? According to Article II, Section I of the Constitution, “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislators there of may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress…” I bet that not one person in the country could name the electors his or her state sends to Washington to elect the President.

"The Electoral College,' a phrase not used in the Constitution, is an institution that means that a citizen’s vote is imprisoned within the state in which it is cast. If you voted for Clinton in Alabama or Trump in California, your vote didn’t count. So unimportant is the popular vote that there is not even a formal tabulation of it by the government.

Because of our Presidential selection system, candidates each 4 years campaign almost exclusively not in big states, not in small states, but in swing states. And because we live in an era of perpetual campaigning—Donald Trump filed papers for the 2020 campaign on January 20, 2017, the day he was inaugurated for his first term, a gesture that it is impossible to imagine George Washington to have made – campaigning equals governing. If you live in a swing Congressional District within a swing state, the President and Congress will give you more attention – for example for infrastructure projects - than if you do not.

What all this means is that if your vote does not count, you don’t count. You are robbed of part of your citizenship.

If a way could be found to make the popular vote rather than the electoral vote determine the winner of the Presidential election, candidates would campaign in every state. Democratic votes in Mississippi and Republican votes in California would matter. Turnout would soar. It has been estimated that 50 million more people might vote.

Lincoln’s dream, eloquently expressed at Gettysburg, of 'a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people' will be realized."

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Michael Matthews