“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
What a remarkable and unforgettable Presidential Primary season we’ve witnessed thus far. Maryland’s primary takes place on April 26, 2016. Many pundits believe that by then, the respective Presidential Nominees will already have been determined. Of course, the pundits have been wrong on more than one occasion during this election cycle. However, even if they are correct, the disenfranchisement experienced by so many citizens in the past should serve as a reminder that voting is a privilege too precious to squander.
In colonial times, only those considered to have “a stake in society” were deemed committed and independent enough to vote in a responsible manner. Generally, that meant only property owning or tax paying White male Protestants could vote. In many of the colonies, voting rights for Catholics, Jews and Quakers were restricted.
After the Revolutionary War, the issue of voting rights was left to the individual states. In 1828, Maryland became the last state to remove religious restrictions, thus granting Jewish males the right to vote. By 1850, property ownership was no longer a requirement. However, after an influx of Irish-Catholic immigrants, northern states like Connecticut and Massachusetts instituted literacy tests as a condition to voting eligibility. During this same time period, only five northern states allowed African-American men the right to vote.
After the Civil War, as a condition to readmission to the Union, Confederate states were required to ratify new state constitutions and adopt the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection under the law to all men, including former slaves. The 15th Amendment was ratified soon after and it gave former (male) slaves the right to vote. So, during Reconstruction, African-American men voted and ran for public office in the South. Most of them joined the Republican party since it was the party of Lincoln. Unfortunately, after President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the former Confederate states, local legislators and their supporters used violence, intimidation and a variety of measures to keep Blacks from voting or seeking public office. Poll taxes – taxes to be paid in order to vote – were instituted. These taxes kept Blacks and poor Whites from voting. Literacy tests like the ones used earlier in northern states, were adopted in the South. With literacy tests, voter eligibility was determined by a man’s ability to read, write and answer specific questions.
Since poll taxes and literacy tests also had an adverse impact on the voting rights of poor Whites, some states used ‘grandfather clauses’ so members of this group could vote. A grandfather clause, as the name suggests, gave a potential voter the right to vote if his grandfather was eligible to vote before 1870 (essentially, before the 15th Amendment and the Civil War). This meant he was exempt from literacy tests and poll tax requirements.
Even though the 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified shortly after the Civil War, the 24th Amendment was still necessary in 1964 to expressly prohibit the use of poll taxes. Congress also passed enabling legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to enforce and protect voting rights of the disenfranchised.
It took the women’s suffrage movement and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 before women were allowed to vote. Supreme Court decisions in the 1920’s limited the right to vote for citizens of Japanese and Indian descent. And, Native Americans weren’t recognized as full citizens with the right to vote until 1924.
Many of us recall that after young people fought and died in service to our country during the Vietnam War, there was a demand for greater voting rights. The 26th Amendment gave United States citizens 18 years and older the right to vote in 1971.
With so many who fought and died for the right to vote, how can we, in good conscience skip this primary or any election? Voting gives us a voice on the issues that matter. The upcoming primary ballot will include the candidates for the Presidential nomination along with several important “down ballot” contests for the U.S. Senate, Congress, Circuit Court Judges and party delegates.
Now it is easier to register to vote than ever before. You can even register to vote online at www.elections.state.md.us. And, if you’re registered to vote (or a licensed driver), you’re eligible for jury service – another important right.
Throughout American history, lawyers have been in the forefront of advocacy for voters and voting rights legislation. That’s why the right to vote should have special significance to lawyers and judges.
In Maryland, early voting takes place from April 14 through April 21, 2016. I’ll see you at the polls.
Hon. Vicki Ballou-Watts,
President, Baltimore County Bar Association