"I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election."
—Walt Whitman, "Democratic Vistas," in The Complete Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman
Every four years, American citizens are given the opportunity to exercise (or ignore) the most fundamental guarantee of the Constitution of the United States. It's stated right there in Article II, Section I, and come November, democracy will once again be in action. So take your silly, round, white Styrofoam hat out of the closet, dust off your League of Woman Voters Guidebook, hang your red-white-and-blue bunting and stretch out your lever-pulling hand. It is time to elect ourselves a President.
The election process begins with the selection of the candidates for the office of President of the United States. The basic rules are rather simple and can be found in the heart of the Constitution: The candidate must be an American citizen, 35 years of age, and "been fourteen years a Resident within the United States." If all three qualifications are met, anyone is technically eligible to run for the highest office in the land, but these days it takes millions upon millions of dollars in the "war chest" to wage a successful campaign. But it is free to be a voter in the national Presidential election, as long as the voter is a naturalized or native-born citizen of the United States and at least eighteen years of age.
- Get the Vote Out
The minimum voting age was lowered with the 27th Amendment, which was ratified in 1971 during the Vietnam War, in part because many citizens questioned why American teenagers could get shipped overseas to die, but weren't given a say in who should have the power to wage war.
Originally, this wasn't the case. In the early days of the country, white males over the age of 21 were the only citizens deemed worthy enough to cast a ballot for the country's leader. Most states went as far as to only give the privilege of the right to vote to property owners or those who paid a levy above and beyond the annual tax. By the end of the Civil War, most of these restrictions went the way of the Whig Party, but blacks, women, and other minorities would have to wait decades before their rights were acknowledged and they joined their fellow citizens in the voting booth. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, gave African-Americans the right to vote, but most of the former Confederate states effectively took it away.
- Get the Vote Out
In the 1880s, the "Jim Crow" system of segregation was implemented throughout the South. There was a wide variety of institutional roadblocks put in place to keep blacks from exercising their right to vote. They included property ownership standards, literacy tests, and poll taxes, all of which were qualifications that no former slave could be expected to meet. The "Jim Crow" laws were not repealed until Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lead the fight for civil rights, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed the federal government to ensure elections free of voter qualifications.
Women were given the right to vote in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment—but only after years of fighting by the suffrage movement.
"VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country."
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
Before an American citizen can cast a vote, they must register in the state in which they live. This can easily be done by picking up a form at a local library, election commission, and most federal offices, or by calling the League of Women Voters. Each state varies as to how long before Election Day one must be registered. If you happen to be away at school, overseas in the armed forces, or on a year-long sabbatical studying giraffe mating habits in Africa, write and request an absentee ballot well in advance of the election.
Election Day is the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in November, and 2000 brings us another Presidential contest. As you reflect on the worn-out stump speeches, the never-ending negative television ads, the empty promises, and the millions in donations and "soft" money that has been spent to get you to pick one candidate over the other, you may ask yourself: How does my vote get counted anyway?
It is a common misconception that the United States is a pure democracy, but American voters do not directly elect the President of the United States. Rather, as set up in Article II of the Constitution, electors from each individual state nominally cast ballots for the President and Vice-President in the Electoral College. Every state (and the District of Columbia) has a number of Electoral College members equal to the number of representatives and senators, with a minimum of three in states such as Alaska and Montana, and a maximum of 54 in California. Securing a majority of 270 electoral votes (out of 538) ensures that the candidate will go on to the White House, so the winner can actually become President by winning the electoral contest but losing the popular vote—which is what cost Grover Cleveland the 1888 election.
- Get the Vote Out
George Washington is the only President of the United States who has been unanimously chosen by the Electoral College. James Monroe ran virtually unopposed in the 1820 election and was very popular during the "Era of Good Feelings," but he received all but one lone electoral vote. A New Hampshire elector voted for John Quincy Adams, reportedly to ensure that George Washington kept the distinction of being the only unanimously elected President of the United States.
The Electoral College was originally created to keep the vote in the hands of the people and downplay partisan politics. Ironically, modern critics find the winner-take-all approach of the Electoral College unfair because it takes the vote out of the hands of people—the electoral votes are wholly won, regardless of whether the majority is one vote or one million.
The percentage of voters in the last two Presidential elections has become distressingly low. There are innumerable reasons for this, both valid and asinine, and it is an unfortunate development. Hopefully, American citizens will remember that the right to vote supersedes the lackluster candidates. It is the most basic bedrock of the freedoms we, as American citizens, often take for granted. This Election Day, what do you say we all get out and vote?