I was lucky to benefit almost immediately from the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution in 1970, which lowered the legal voting age in America to 18. I turned 18 in 1972, which was the first presidential election where those under 21 could participate. My guy George McGovern didn’t win; Richard Nixon went to the White House instead. But it sure felt good to have a say in the process. Since then I’ve voted mostly on the losing side, though both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton won with my help (and you could probably count Al Gore, too). Now you know where my left-leaning, Birkenstock-wearing, Volvo-driving, God-less, quiche-eating political tendencies lie.
Regardless of your own choice, the wonderful thing about America is that all of our votes count. But it wasn’t always that way, and from the very beginning of our democracy issues surrounding voting rights and voter fraud have been divisive and surprisingly hard to solve. This year’s issues include groups like Acorn trying to bring more people on to the voter roles and other groups supposedly trying to disenfranchise other blocks of voters. People who have the right to vote seem to be very protective, and sometimes downright suspicious, of others trying to get in on the fun.
This week, I’ll look at voting images from the past and re-cap a few highlights from our slow progress toward a more perfect union. Many of these images come from the Library of Congress and a few from the Smithsonian, both of which have great collections of things related to democracy. Looking back in American history is sometimes uncomfortable as we see a side of our ancestry that is racist, sexist and worse. But I believe recognition of these past injustices is necessary to move on. And in light of some of the ugliness that has reared its head in this current election cycle, it seems even more fitting to remind ourselves that hatred or fear of those not exactly like us is a tendency we must guard against with vigilance and unity. What in retrospect seems so offensive was, at the time, a source of misguided pride among people who surely considered themselves “real” Americans.
Click on any of these images to see a larger version, which is necessary in some cases to read the small type.
First up is a cover of Newsweek magazine from October 1971, posing the question “How Will Youth Vote?” Eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds were the last large group of American citizens to receive voting rights. At the time this was controversial (as all expansions of voting rights are), but we were deep into the Vietnam War and it was hard not to agree that if you were old enough to die for your country, you ought to be old enough to vote for your leaders.
Long before the youth vote was debated, there were bigger voting fish to fry. The founders of our country left a lot of points related to voting rules up to individual states. This meant widespread discrimination; by some estimates, only 5% of the population (mostly white, male property owners) was eligible to vote in the election of 1800.
Despite a few rogue state laws that let women vote early on, by 1807 it was illegal for women to vote in all the states. And of course pretty much any man not of white European heritage was denied citizenship, and with it the right to vote. The first of those groups to gain voting rights (at least in the Constitution, if not in practice) were black men. In 1867 the Fourteenth Amendment extended citizenship (but not voting rights) to black Americans, and explicitly excluded women from full citizenship. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment extended voting rights to black citizens, but again, women were excluded.
Here, from 1860, is an anti-black-voter advertisement from a New York paper, followed by the pro-voting rights sheet music for “Darkeys Suffrage” in 1868, and a wood engraving from 1866 highlighting the “radical” platform in favor of granting rights to black citizens.
The usual fears surrounded the idea of giving black people the right to vote. Here’s a cartoon from 1877 suggesting that the Republican Party would be dead in the South if blacks voted, followed by a poster suggesting that it was radicals in Congress who voted for black suffrage.
Fortunately, reason won out, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, and black citizens got the right to vote. Here is a Harpers Weekly cover showing the “first” black man casting a vote, followed by a print highlighting the struggle and signing of the Amendment.
However, getting the right to vote and actually voting were two different matters entirely. It wouldn’t be until the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act that real enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment could take place.
Women also struggled to gain voting rights. Despite a valiant effort to gain inclusion in the Fifteenth Amendment, it wasn’t until 1920 and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that women gained the right to vote.
Again, it was fear that stalled the process. Here is a mocking cartoon from 1909 that suggests what might happen if women voted anywhere near a hat store, followed by another cartoon with a caption saying that women spend all their time on clothes and gossip simply because they don’t have anything to talk about. Give her the right to vote and “she will cease to be vain and frivolous.” Below that is a 1914 illustration entitled “two’s company, three’s a crowd.”
Women organized a strong suffrage movement and many went to jail, were beaten, and were otherwise demeaned for protesting. Here is a 1917 image of 14 suffragists on the picket line in front of the White House, followed by a 1918 picture of police confronting women during a demonstration in front of the Senate office building, and a 1912 image of the Woman Suffrage Headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio.
And here are a few more images from the era, the first a cover from the Woman Suffrage procession in 1913, the second a photo from that procession, then a 1913 postcard, and an 1898 program cover from a play that explored the issue of women voting.
It seems that almost every group besides white men was targeted at one time or another as being somehow anti-American and unworthy of the right to vote. Here, from 1879 is a cartoon suggesting that if Chinese immigrants were given the right to vote, they would go with a straight Democratic ticket.
Go to page 2 for old-timey socialist-baiting, hanging chads, and more!