OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Voting is a fundamental process in a democratic system. It’s a chance for the citizens of a country to have a say in who represents them and/or influence an issue that impacts them. Informed voting and participating in elections is one of the responsibilities of citizens of the United States. In the United States, the voting process is fairly straightforward. First, an eligible citizen registers to vote, studies the candidates and issues, looks up their polling location, then they casts their ballot.
Today, most American citizens over the age of 18 are entitled to vote in federal and state elections, but voting was not always a default right for all Americans. The United States Constitution, as originally written, did not define specifically who could or could not vote – but it did establish how the country would vote.
Article 1 – of the Constitution determined that members of the Senate and House of Representatives would both be elected directly by popular vote. The president, however, would be elected not by direct vote, but rather by the Electoral College. The Electoral College assigns a number of representative votes per state, typically based on the state’s population. This indirect election method was seen as a balance between the popular vote and using a state’s representatives in Congress to elect a president.
Because the Constitution did not specifically say who could vote, this question was largely left to the states into the 1800s. In most cases, land-owning white men were eligible to vote, while white women, black people, and other disadvantaged groups of the time were excluded from voting (known as disenfranchisement). While no longer explicitly excluded, voter suppression is a problem in many parts of the country, as some politicians try to win reelection by limiting the number of specific populations of voters, such as African Americans. It was not until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1869 that black men were allowed to vote. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, when the long efforts of the women’s suffrage movement resulted in the 19th Amendment. But even so, many would-be voters faced artificial hurdles like poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures meant to discourage them from exercising their voting right. This would continue until the 24th Amendment in 1964, which eliminated the poll tax, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended Jim Crow laws.
With these amendments removing the previous barriers to voting (particularly sex and race), theoretically all American citizens over the age of 21 could vote by the mid-1960s. Later, in 1971, the American voting age was lowered to 18, building on the idea that if a person was old enough to serve their country in the military, they should be allowed to vote. With these constitutional amendments and legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the struggle for widespread voting rights evolved from the Founding Fathers’ era to the late 20th century. If you ever think that just one vote in a sea of millions cannot make much of a difference, consider some of the closest elections in our U.S. history. In 2000, Al Gore narrowly lost the Electoral College vote to George W. Bush. The election came down to a recount in Florida, where Bush had won the popular vote by such a small margin that it triggered an automatic recount and a Supreme Court case. In the end, Bush won Florida by 0.009 percent of the votes cast in the state, or 537 votes. Had 600 more pro-Gore voters gone to the polls in Florida that November, there may have been an entirely different president from 2000–2008.
More recently, during the last presidential election in 2016 Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by securing a close Electoral College win. Although the election did not come down to a handful of votes in one state, Trump’s votes in the Electoral College decided a tight race. Clinton had won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes, but the concentration of Trump voters in key districts in “swing” states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan helped seal enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Your vote may not directly elect the president, but if your vote joins enough others in your voting district or county, your vote undoubtedly matters when it comes to electoral results. Most states have a “winner take all” system where the popular vote winner gets the state’s electoral votes. There are also local and state elections to consider. While presidential or other national elections usually get a significant voter turnout, local elections are typically decided by a much smaller group of voters.
How you can make your voice heard? Participating in elections is one of the key freedoms of American life. Many people in countries around the world do not have the same freedom, nor did many Americans in centuries past. No matter what you believe or whom you support, it is important to exercise your rights. Building a relationship with the political process as early as possible is key to making voting a lifelong habit. If you’re historically a repeat voter, you’re much less likely to skip a trip to the polls in the future. This sort of habit forming participation is key to driving policy and electing leaders who represent the needs of the voters.
In today’s tech-savvy world, there is no excuse not to vote because you don’t know enough about the candidates. In fact, one might find it harder to escape day-to-day political news than subscribe to it. In an era in which Twitter is the preferred means of communication for the President of the United States, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat have become as crucial as the candidates’ own websites for disseminating information about relevant issues. As this type of civic education is typical for most Americans today, it isn’t just beneficial in the months leading up the election but also on a day-to-day basis. The current online climate allows both young and older voters to form a fuller picture of the candidates and their platforms in a medium they’re familiar with.
No matter your age or voting history, the first step in getting involved is to check your voter status; research how to register to vote in your state if you’re not. If you are already registered in your state but have recently moved, you will need to update your address in order to provide current registration at your local polling place on Election Day. Some states now make it possible for you to register to vote online, though traditionally voters must register by mail or in person. You can, however, change your address online or via text message in some states, as well as search for polling places near you online. Some states allow voting by mail for local, state, and even presidential elections. Our military serving outside their state of registration and students who are studying abroad or travelling during the election and thus, not in their home state or even in the U.S., must request an absentee ballot through the Federal Post Card Application form that can be found at https://www.fvap.gov/. Although they are requesting an absentee ballot from outside of their home state or country, the student and military must still be registered to vote in their state of residence to be eligible to vote in a U.S. election.
The law does not require our citizens to vote however, voting is a very important part of any successful democracy. By voting, citizens are participating in the democratic process. Citizens vote for leaders to represent them and their ideas and the leaders support the citizen’s interests. Voting is the most important way to make your voice heard on the issues that concern you. Voting gives you an opportunity to be part of decision making process. Citizen voters make the future of the country.