The long list of calls settled itself into the monotone of routine. “Hi, my name is Erik, and I’m calling for Jim Scheibel, your DFL candidate for Mayor of Saint Paul.” The 1989 election was going to be close, so Get Out The Vote (GOTV) calling to loyal Democrats was important. But just as I let the script propel my calls with their own momentum the soft gravely tone on the other end split the evening open.
“Oh, dear, you don’t have to remind me to vote. I’ve been voting ever since they let us.”
We’ve been “letting” women vote for 93 years today, ever since Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment on August 26th, 1920 by just one vote. This anniversary, “Women’s Equality Day”, is a good time to reflect on how young and precarious this precious foundation of democracy is for half the population.
This is important to remember as we head towards the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the moment that turned the tide for civil rights as a national movement. We also have to remember the Voting Rights Act that came out of that march, only recently gutted by the Supreme Court in the naïve belief that it was no longer necessary. Texas and North Carolina wasted no time making it harder to vote, leading Gen. Colin Powell to admonish an audience that included the Governor who led that effort in Raleigh:
“I want to see policies that encourage every American to vote, not make it more difficult to vote,” Powell said. He later added, “You can say what you like, but there is no voter fraud. How can it be widespread and undetected?”
Governor McCrory did not directly respond to this criticism from such a high ranking Republican, but the battle lines are being very clearly set. North Carolina has required a state issued photo ID to vote and has installed new elections boards in every county, some of which have clearly tried to make it harder to vote. The effort is breathtaking in its scope.
No one has specifically targeted women’s voting yet, so on this anniversary we are safe celebrating a victory that still remains unchallenged. But the principle of voting as a universal right is very much under assault, and this is as good of a day to remember it as any. Voting has not always been viewed as a fundamental right for all persons, not by any possible read of history.
The Founding Fathers became very wise after years of bickering and finally building consensus through compromise. They were able to anticipate many things that might threaten the great experiment that they were creating – and for many years it was viewed as an experiment. The national anthem, written under British assault in the War of 1812, contains many questions that reflect the nature of the insecurity of freedom long after our independence. “Does that star spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Sometimes, to this day, we have to still ask ourselves that question.
But for all that those brave men tried to anticipate, they missed on very big thing – something that has come to define every generation of Americans ever since then who has taken up the challenge to be the founding parents of a new nation, constantly reborn. The continuous if slow advancement of civil rights and the expansion of the definition of liberty defines this nation like no other. This is what makes us a nation unique in the world.
The experiment worked far better than its creators could imagine. The questions were all eventually answered. Voting was expanded beyond property owners, to freed slaves, and to women. Those rights were secured with legislation unequivocal in its scope and power.
One of those landmarks was passed 93 years ago today – within the lifetime of people still alive. It’s worth celebrating. But how much can we celebrate when there is a new assault that threatens to turn the march of civil rights backwards, in a profoundly un-American way? How do we celebrate this victory when other defeats surround us?
Those questions are easily answered. The movement to turn away citizens from exercising the most basic right of all to anyone who loves freedom and democracy have to be turned back. Remember today how young the right to vote is for half of our population and let’s all be glad that we live in a nation defined so clearly by steady progress in the rights of all.
The right of all citizens to vote is the most basic right that defines us. Any attempt to turn that right back for one group is an assault on us all, as a nation. Today is a good day to remember that.