I’ve heard many folks on the right say things like, “Think of all the men and women who died to get you the vote,” and they are undoubtedly referring to soldiers in the US military who they erroneously suppose have struggled for our right to vote. This is, in fact, false.
The outcome of the Revolutionary War was not universal male suffrage (then the standard for universal voting rights, sadly), but rather suffrage only for white male property owners—the “responsible” few who owned the wealth and thus could be called upon to make the right decisions to safeguard that wealth with the power of the state.
As for the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, its quite obvious that none of this had to do with extending voting rights to more Americans. In the former case, in fact, a component of the war was an attempt to militarily conquer Canada, and in the latter case a successful invasion of Mexico ended with annexation of large swaths of territory.
The case of the Civil War is more complicated, but in the end the material fact is that it was a struggle by, on the one hand, the Confederate insurgents, who sought to maintain a system of slavery and a racial caste system, and, on the other hand, masses of soldiers who were fighting to preserve the Union…whatever the costs. The end result of a general strike among slaves, riots by poor whites and Union military success ended in a system that did in fact involve soldiers enforcing the right to vote for former slaves and whites who sided with the Republican Party, but in time even this would be stripped away and the long terror of Jim Crow descended on the South.
Soldiers certainly did not fight for the rights of Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Filipinos to vote in the 1898 Spanish-American War, nor did they take up arms to involve themselves in the final days of the imperial melee called World War I for the right to vote.
World War II? Well, it is clear that, in the long term, the victory of the Axis powers would have meant the end of electoral democracy for the losers, but in truth only US colonies like Hawaii (it was not a state at the time) were really under physical threat. As for those “liberated” by the Americans, a considerable amount of voting fraud was enforced after the war to ensure the Communists did not win control of the Italian and French governments, and in the case of Greece an out and out violent suppression of left-wing dissidents with US and British backing followed “liberation,” so that is a hard case to make.
One would have to be profoundly ignorant of history to look at the Cold War and say the US brought the right to vote to its satellites, even serious right wingers recognize that this was not the case, what with the obvious cases of military dictatorships in South Korea and South Vietnam with major US backing, as well as the numerous local authoritarianisms supported by the US government in the name of “containing the USSR.”
So who has died for our right to vote? Well, everyone who struggled for expanding that right, for starters. The poor farmers and other poor whites whose agitation led to the extension of suffrage to all white men in the early 1800’s, the abolitionists, left-wing Republicans and black activists of the Reconstruction era, the suffragettes at the turn of the century through World War I, the Freedom Riders and countless black Southerners who struggled to win the right to vote for black people in the Jim Crow system.
In other words, the real people who have fought and died for the right to vote are the very progressives, leftists, oppressed and so forth who have been so derided by right wingers as “anti-American” or “un-patriotic.” Today there are those in the liberal and oppressed communities who are documenting cases of voter intimidation, of various passive means utilized by various local and state governments to make voting difficult including understaffing precincts of predominately African-American communities and voter ID laws.
Today, in response to a case brought to the United Nations by the NAACP and the ACLU, UN observers are observing election irregularities in the US, though without the kind of extensive infrastructure that exists in other “troubled” places around the world. The US, for all of its talk of democracy and human rights, does not consider the right to vote a human right in its own borders and regularly subjects people to various hoops whose end result in disenfranchisement, including the states were former felons are permanently disenfranchised.
Florida is the most egregious case. There, the Democratic Party has brought a suit against the government and the Justice Department has had to intervene in order to push back against the extreme voter suppression undertaken by that state’s Republican leadership. Things got so bad in Miami, for instance, that voters swamped the election headquarters and chanted outside, “LET US VOTE! LET US VOTE!”
Our entire voting system is in need of desperate and extensive reform. The patchwork of local and state regulations for voting has created a Frankenstein’s monster of a system that does not serve the electorate, but rather serves the short term interests of political opportunists who seek to game the system and push for various forms of disenfranchisement. This is the very system that allowed the chaos of the 2000 Florida debacle, one that was ended with the absurd prospect of the right wing of the Supreme Court ruling to stop the constitutionally-mandated vote recount, thereby giving the Presidency to George W. Bush.
The electoral college, once a system devised to defend the interests of various “state republics” has now become another means for pushing undemocratic outcomes on the electorate. We no longer live in a system of mini-republics, the states are firmly subordinate to the national government, and the population routinely shifts from one state to another. The time has come for the abolition of the electoral college.
The time has also come for a national voting system in which the right to vote is indeed recognized as an inalienable civil and human right, not a liberty to be tampered with for the sake of opportunistic political machines. We need a single system for the entire country, extended early voting for all, international oversight of our elections, poll monitors documenting the procedures and vote counts, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, an end to discrimination against former felons, and Election Day must be declared a national holiday in which private businesses—with the exception of the most vital elements of infrastructure—are required to let their workers go vote.
But more than anything else, we need to put a stop to the private funding of our elections and replace it with a national system of public financing. Money ought not to be allowed to speak in place of actual voters, rather the realm of democracy must be free and open to the public on equal grounds—those with more money do not need a greater voice than the rest of us.
This system is clearly not designed in the interests of the vast majority and so it is our duty, as it has been in the past, to struggle to change that equation. Only with a massive effort in the streets, in the workplaces and neighborhoods by ordinary people standing up to power can we hope to bring about these necessary changes to our electoral system.
Will that be the end of our struggle? If we achieve these goals, will we then be able to elect true representation and call it a day? Never. Getting the right people into office will never solve our social problems or bring us authentic democracy, but it is a step in the right direction, and one that we have a duty to take on.
The blood of all of those oppressed who came before us to just get us these limited concessions in a system of structural inequality cries out to us, compels us to take action. It is not too late. The die has not been cast, we still have avenues that much of the rest of the world struggles to achieve. Let us not regard them with cynicism and incredulity, rather let us lay hold of what we have in order to struggle to achieve something greater.
The whole world is watching our elections. We’ve nothing to lose but our own apathy and disempowerment. We’ve much to win.
LINKS FOR TODAY:
http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3738 ”JILL STEIN, GREEN PARTY4PREZ”
http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3715 ”THE NEXT 4 YEARS”