Hey! I don’t know if y’all have heard but, there’s an election going on. I know! Thankfully 3,000 of my Facebook friends have been posting about it nonstop over the last two years so I remembered to vote. But maybe you haven’t heard. So, if I’m the first person to tell you this, then let me inform you: 2018 is an election year. And this midterm might just be one of the most important midterms of our life. So you should vote.
If you haven’t voted yet, go out and do that right now. I’ll wait…
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way… I want to dedicate an episode to politics. Yes, politics. The thing you’re all tired of hearing about. But, that’s how important this election is. As much as I didn’t want to spend weeks researching our political parties, and voter expansion, and voter suppression, and all of the things everyone is yelling about… it’s just that important.
We’ll look at the evolution of the Democratic and Republican parties; all the people who can now vote who didn’t use to be able to; and, sadly, all the ways people are still being disenfranchised. If nothing else, today’s episode should make you super grateful that you were able to cast your ballot. And if you are eligible and haven’t voted, my goal is to shame you into submission. Woohoo!
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…
Act 1: Party On, George!
Ah political parties. Why do you exist? No seriously. Why do you exist?
There is nothing in our Constitution that mandates political parties. In fact, our first and greatest president; the OG himself – George Washington – specifically told us not to create them. Y’all, I love George. He’s the best. My students know that we’re on a first name basis. When he left office, he gave a Farewell Address that contained specific pieces of advice for our nation. Honestly, I think every American should read the entire speech. It’s like George could see into the future and predict what was going to happen to us. Did anyone listen? No, of course not. But we should have.
Besides trivial nuggets of advice like: don’t get too involved in foreign affairs and avoid debt; George spent paragraphs explaining why we shouldn’t form political parties. He argued that by dividing the country into teams, political parties could become “engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion…” Basically, unethical men who just want power will say and do whatever they need to say and do to get the support of their party, then when they get into office they will break down the government from within so that they can stay in power. Shut up, George; that’s crazy; that would never happen.
But wait. There’s more. George also warned that this kind of division “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.” Again, he’s saying that by dividing us against ourselves, our politics will be run on jealousy, hatred, and the desire to win over true productive governance. And, it would make it easier for foreign and corrupt powers to get involved in our political system. Apparently Americans haven’t read this speech but Putin has. WHY DIDN’T WE LISTEN TO YOU, GEORGE?!
But, alas, we did not. And as soon as George left office, political parties began to form. At first, we had the Federalists versus the now confusingly named Democratic-Republicans but the Federalists soon broke apart after the War of 1812. We’ll talk about this more in the next act but keep in mind that for the first generation after our nation was created, the government was explicitly run by the elites. Our entire electoral system was built to prevent lower class white men – let alone anyone else – from participating. Most of the powerful positions in government at this time, including senators and the president, were actually chosen by state legislatures – not a popular vote. This meant that the people who were already in power after the Revolution – those guys in wigs who helped write the Constitution – wrote it so that they, and their offspring, would run the government. The Founding Fathers were terrified of a true democracy and they did everything they could to control the outcome. Electoral college, anyone?
But there is one guy who began to break this system wide open. To be clear, he was a pretty terrible guy – just ask the Native Americans who were forced to walk the Trail of Tears or the US government who decided to take him off the $20 bill. But he did do a lot to shift party politics toward the so-called “common man.” I’m talking about AJ – the original Supreme Court-ignorer himself – Andrew Jackson.
*Side note: I have a theory about Trump’s presidency that he just read a biography of Andrew Jackson and thought, “Yeah that sounds pretty good. I’ll do that.” Seriously. Mudslinging campaigns? Straight-up ignoring Supreme Court decisions? Threatening the military in states who aren’t doing what you want? Tariff wars? Mistreatment of ethnic minorities? A non-politician – a self-proclaimed “outsider” – winning the White House and bringing all of his sleazy friends with him? And now, Trump is picking a fight with the Federal Reserve? I think he just got to the chapter on Jackson’s War with the Bank of the United States. Anyway, that’s a conversation for another day…
What Jackson did that moved party politics forward is twofold: he involved the “common man” in elections like never before and he broke apart the Democratic-Republican party. To be clear, whenever I say the “common man” – I’m talking poor, white men. Like I said, they were not really directly involved in national elections – they elected their state legislatures who then chose the president. But throughout the 1820s, many legislatures had changed that and allowed for people to directly vote for the president. And the first opportunity they got, they had a guy running who was one of them. A frontiersman with little formal education, Jackson won the popular vote in the election of 1824. But, he didn’t win enough electoral delegates to win straight up. The checks that the elites wrote into the Constitution to keep someone like Jackson from becoming president had worked. And when the decision went to the House of Representatives, they selected their guy: runner up and son of the second president: John Q. Adams. Ah, democracy.
Jackson’s voters were outraged. They realized that the system was rigged against them and, four years later, Jackson’s base came out stronger than ever and he won the presidency by a landslide in 1828. Jackson’s first night as president turned into an all-night rager that spilled onto the White House lawn. The horrified elites in Washington nicknamed it the Inaugural Brawl. And it was the divisiveness of Jackson that split the united Democratic-Republican Party in two. Democrats supported Jackson; and his reputation as a Jackass became so widespread that the donkey became the symbol of the Democratic Party.
Democrats were mostly those “common men” I’ve been talking about. They identified themselves as the enemies of the elites in Washington. They were farmers and frontiersmen or just people who thought the federal government was too overreaching and should stay out of their lives. Notice: this is almost the exact opposite of the Democratic Party today. On the other side were Republicans, represented mostly by the elites and business interests in the northeast. They supported a large federal government – again, the opposite of Republicans today.
By the Civil War, the parties had crystallized. The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln. They supported a massive federal government, they dominated in the North, and they were fiercely liberal especially on the topic of human rights. They opposed the expansion of slavery, pushed for more spending on public education, sought to open up immigration, and eventually passed protections for African Americans in the years after the Civil War. On the other side were the Democrats. To be clear, not all Democrats supported slavery, but Southern Democrats dominated state politics in the years before the Civil War. Democrats were conservative and supported states’ rights over the federal government, including states’ rights to determine the slavery question for themselves.
So how did these parties switch so completely? It would take one hundred years, but over time the parties slowly shifted, crossing each other as they passed to the other end of the spectrum. It’s a really complex question so let me try to answer it in about three minutes:
First, business interests began to shift. After the Civil War, the country was rapidly industrializing and changing from a nation of farmers to a nation of extreme wealth. Notice that business and manufacturing interests have stuck with the Republican party throughout our history, but they were the ones slowly shifting the platform of the Republican Party. At first, when they were trying to grow, businesses in the northeast needed the protection of a big federal government against competition from Europe.
But, as these businesses grew successful, they eventually wanted to be left alone. By the end of the so-called Gilded Age in the 1890s, big business – represented by titans like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan – supported laissez-faire capitalism. Now that they had grown and could compete on the world stage, they wanted as few regulations on the economy as possible. They began to support a federal government that did not interfere in the economy and they took the Republican Party with them.
Meanwhile, the so-called “common men” who were part of the Democratic Party began to need the federal government to protect them against these rising big businesses. People on the frontier wanted the government to open up access to silver coinage, farmers wanted to stop being screwed by the massive railroads, and workers just wanted to get through a day without losing their hands. They started to push for a more-involved federal government that would work to protect people against corporate interests, and they took the Democratic Party with them.
This shift continued throughout the Progressive Era from 1900 to 1920. As social activists in both parties pushed for reforms on issues like child labor, unsafe working conditions, unsanitary food practices, oh yeah, and women not being able to vote, this group coalesced into a powerful voting bloc. With the help of Teddy Roosevelt – who left the Republican Party to run for president again as the Progressive Party candidate – many of the progressives and social activists left the Republican Party with him.
Teddy’s new party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party because Teddy’s a total badass, called for universal healthcare, government pensions, disability insurance, a minimum wage, support for labor unions, an inheritance tax on rich estates, and a progressive income tax that “should increase in a very marked fashion for the gigantic incomes” (according to Teddy.) I always love it when fiercely conservative men glorify Teddy Roosevelt just because he liked to hunt, having no idea that today they would call him a Democratic Socialist. Teddy would be BFFs with Bernie Sanders.
But, the two parties were still divided geographically. There were many southern whites who remained loyal to the Democratic Party because they were upholding states’ rights to establish Jim Crow laws in the South. And African Americans still overwhelmingly supported the Republicans, not forgetting that it was the Party of Lincoln. These are the last two groups that need to shift.
First, the Great Depression hit. As FDR set out his New Deal, he solidified the Democratic Party as the party of big government. His reforms were massive, to the point that the bordered on socialism. Quick theory: there are a lot of people today who think that these New Deal reforms – like Social Security – took our country to the brink of socialism. I would argue the opposite.
Socialism was a rising tide in the 1930s – in the U.S. and around the world. Some countries tried to actively oppose socialist movements – the most extreme example being Nazi Germany. Communist Party members were the first to go to the concentration camps. Other places, like Europe, starting leaning into these movements. I would argue that FDR kept the U.S. from becoming a socialist state (for better or for worse) by co-opting the movement. He took some of the Socialists best ideas and made them part of the Democratic platform, leaving them without a lot of power or influence in their own right.
Either way, the Democratic Party became the party of big government and social reform.
The next major event was the Civil Rights movement. In the 1960s, LBJ, a Democrat from Texas (what a crazy idea), led some of the largest societal reforms in our history, passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. This broke the geographic barriers wide open as southern Democrats fled the party for the Republicans – who, again, were now opposed to large federal government oversight. And African Americans finally abandoned the Party of Lincoln. Some African Americans, especially those who had moved up north in search of jobs during World War I, shifted to the Democrats during the New Deal. But the Democratic Party’s support for the Civil Rights Movement was the final blow, as southern blacks left the Republican Party.
It took a hundred years, but the political parties we see today were finally formed by the 1970s. New shifts are occurring of course but I would argue that platforms and policies are not changing, they are just growing more intense. The backlash among some white voters to the Civil Rights movement led to a new, stronger conservatism epitomized by Nixon and Reagan. And, more recently, the rise of the so-called “Religious Right” has slowly changed the face of the Republican Party into a party that does think the government should get involved in social reforms, on the side of traditional Christian beliefs.
Today, we’re seeing the parties leaning into their differences, with the Tea Party (now the Freedom Caucus) becoming more powerful in the Republican Party, and Democratic Socialism gaining steam on the left. With this, I would like to read one more excerpt from Washington’s Farewell Address:
“While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionately greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations; and, what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves,… In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”
Act 2: Mo’ Voters Mo’ Problems (Voter Expansion)
Just like our political parties have grown and evolved over time, so has our electorate. Like I mentioned before, when the Constitution was passed, the people who were guaranteed the right to vote were white men who owned property and who were born in the United States. Keep in mind that originally each state gets to set its own voting requirements, but overall this meant that 6% of the population was allowed to vote in 1789. There were a few states who originally allowed free black men to vote, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but those states gradually legislated away black voting rights.
Why was there a property requirement in most states? Well, in most states the only taxes were on property. So, the logic was that you should get to vote if you pay taxes – remember that the whole reason we rebelled was “No taxation without representation.” The government, originally, was not supposed to play a large part in the daily lives of Americans and so, the Founding Fathers thought, why would average Americans need to have a say in our boring decision making when it’s mostly about tariffs and building roads?
Thomas Jefferson envisioned our nation a country of small farmers, which would have meant that most families would have owned some property, and thus, been allowed to vote. However, that’s not what happened. Eventually, states recognized that a lot of white men didn’t own property and were disenfranchised. Over the first 50 years of our nation’s existence, states focused on expanding voting rights to all white men. This meant that they eliminated the property restrictions on voting. The last state to end property requirements for voters was North Carolina in 1856.
This change had a huge impact on elections. In the 1840 election, 80% of adult white men voted. Like we already talked about, popular candidates won out over the established elites. As the “common man” became a part of the political process, the government slowly expanded its role in the “common man’s” life.
Also, I know it’s easy to be cynical here and think, “Cool. Way to go white guys. I’m so glad you get to vote, but what about everyone else?” And that’s fair. But, it’s also important to recognize that at the time, the U.S. was way more democratic than everywhere else in the world. For example, England didn’t remove property requirements for voting until 1918.
But, one of the largest expansions of the electorate came after the Civil War with three of the most significant amendments ever passed. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery (except for prisoners – an important note that we sometimes forget about). But the single most important amendment, or maybe the single most important legal paragraph, in my opinion, that all Americans should know is the 14th Amendment.
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
This Amendment establishes a few things. One: that anyone born in the U.S. is automatically a citizen. This is a big deal. In Europe, for example, they use jus sanguinis or “right of blood.” So if one of your parents is a citizen then you are automatically a citizen. But the 14th Amendment clearly states that the right to be an American citizen should go to anyone born here – including former slaves and children of illegal immigrant, but not, ironically, including Native Americans. They’ll get their citizenship later. Quick side note: Trump, if you’re listening, the President cannot amend and a constitutional amendment. That is all.
The 14th Amendment also established that all citizens had the same rights to “life, liberty, or property” that could not be taken away without due process and that all citizens deserved, “equal protection of the laws.” In theory, this meant that basic rights of citizens – like the right to vote – could not be taken away by any government – federal, state, or local. States will figure out ways around this; but still.
And, finally, the 15th Amendment stated that the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The 15th Amendment is huge. But it should have been huger. Women’s rights advocates had hoped that the 15th Amendment would establish the right to vote for women, as well, especially since women had been so influential in the movement to abolish slavery. Needless to say, they were very disappointed.
Susan B. Anthony, leading suffragette, tested these changes to the electorate by leading a group of women to vote in the 1872 presidential election. As the New York Times reported at the time, “Miss Susan B. Anthony has had the honor of leading to the polls the advanced guard of the coming squadrons of female voters. The little band of nine ladies whose ballots were received by the election inspectors at Rochester deserve a permanent place in history.” Ignoring the super patronizing, “little band of nine ladies,” this sounds like a momentous occasion, foreshadowing the droves of women who would soon be able to go to the polls. But, in reality, the New York Times gave this event one paragraph in the section titled, “Minor Topics.” Womp womp. It would be 50 more years before women would get the right to vote.
Susan B. Anthony would not live to see that day, but in 1920 the 19th Amendment was passed giving women the right to vote. Why 1920? Well, the long-term reason is the Progressive Movement. Like I mentioned in Act 1, the Progressive movement of the early 1900s was a push for social reform, focusing on child laborers, workers, immigrants, and the poor. This movement was dominated by middle class women who had been told for millennia that they were supposed to focus on raising children and caring for their husbands and the home. So, when the problems politicians were facing were about children in factories, their husbands terrible working conditions, and the lack of safe housing for orphans and immigrants, among other things, women were like, “Hold my purse. We got this.”
As women led many of these progressive movements, like the temperance movement to ban alcohol, they gained the political skills and experience that helped them also make the final push to vote.
Short-term, the amendment passed in 1920 because World War I had just ended. Woodrow Wilson came into office clearly opposed to woman suffrage. He once told his fiancee that women who spoke in public gave him a “chilled, scandalized feeling.” But, when the war broke out and most of the men went off to fight, it was just Wilson and a bunch of women left back at home. Awkward. Even though we didn’t have quite the same “Rosie the Riveter” effect as during World War Two, the vacuum left by so many men going off to Europe gave women the space they needed to thrive and further organize their movement.
Also, by the end of the war Wilson was traveling around Europe trying to convince them to accept his new doctrine of self-determination. Wilson was opposed to the idea of empires and believed that new nations should be given the right to determine their own political fate. One of those new nations was the enemy, Germany. Wilson had lamented in speeches that the German people were not living in a true democracy while they were under the thumb of the Kaiser. The irony was not lost on women at home. Alice Paul, leading suffragette and all-around badass, stood outside the White House holding a banner that read “Kaiser Wilson, have you forgotten your sympathy with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed? 20,000,000 American women are not self-governed. Take the beam out of your own eye.” Boom.
All of these factors conspired to grant women the right to vote less than 100 years ago. I’m going to keep saying it out loud in the hopes that it becomes true: I think it would be the ultimate achievement if 2020 – one hundred years after the 19th Amendment was passed – was the year that we elected a female president. Just saying.
During this same time period, a few other changes were made. Most notably, the 17th Amendment, passed in 1913, established the direct election of Senators. Before 1913, senators were chosen by their state legislatures. So the 17th Amendment is the reason why Texans, for example, are able to go to the polls and choose whether we want to be represented by Ted Cruz or Beto O’Rourke. If you’ve been following my podcast this whole time and can’t guess who I voted for then you’re a terrible listener.
It’s important to point out that when women gained the right to vote, women of color pretty much immediately fell into the same, disenfranchised camp that men of color had been in since the beginning of the Jim Crow Era in the 1870s. We need an entire episode to do justice to the Civil Rights movement, but for now, just know that the single most important piece of legislation regarding voting came in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. Signed into law by LBJ, this prohibits racial discrimination in voting, partly by outlawing state practices that disenfranchised people of color.
Finally, near the end of the Vietnam War, as 18-year-olds were being drafted and sent to fight, the 26th Amendment was passed. This lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 on the basis that if you could be drafted and die fighting for your country, you should be allowed to vote. “No expiration without representation,” if you will.
And that’s the story of how we went from a nation where only 6% of people were eligible to vote – white, property-owning men – to a massive democracy where all citizens (in theory) can determine their political fate. It’s beautiful. And if you want to end on that positive note and ride off into our democratic sunset, more power to you. Because that feeling you have right now? The feeling of limitless possibilities and everyone having a true voice in the government? Yeah, I’m about to ruin that.
Act 3: Voter Suppression
The thing about people is that they like power. And people who have power are not very likely to willingly give that away or share it with new people. And so, alongside efforts to increase the electorate, there have always been people trying to counteract that expansion.
The most famous example is the Jim Crow Era in the South. Outlawed by the Voting Rights Act, southern states became very creative in the decades after the Civil War. States passed poll taxes requiring voters to pay to cast a ballot. When this also hurt poor white men, the heart of the southern Democratic party, they added clauses like the Grandfather Clause which said that you were allowed to vote if your grandfather could vote. This is where the term “grandfathered in” comes from. This obviously didn’t apply to black people, whose grandparents had all been enslaved, but it allowed poor white men to vote even if they couldn’t afford the poll tax or pass the literacy tests.
Speaking of literacy tests, this was another way to suppress voters. And, these literacy tests are not basic tests of whether you can read or not (which, by the way, many black people couldn’t because – again – they had been enslaved). But, these tests are difficult even for people who can read. I took the Alabama literacy test from the 1960s and I failed. Many states asked complicated government questions, like “A U.S. Senator elected at the general election in November takes office the following year on what date?” What? I don’t know the exact date! But, of course, thanks to the Grandfather Clause I would be just fine in 1960s Alabama.
Another literacy test from Louisiana asks readers to complete tasks like, “Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line, but capitalize the fifth word that you write.” Or, “In the space below draw three circles, one inside (engulfed by) the other.” Now, this one sparked a heated debate in my U.S. history class this year. Were you supposed to draw three concentric circles, one on the outside with two smaller ones each inside it? Or, since the question says, “one inside the other” does that mean that only one circle should be inside another and the third circle should just be off on its own? Again, I have a masters degree and my students are all highly literate and we were split. Imagine if you were an African American with a basic education, taking this test surrounded by white poll workers, some of which you knew to be members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Of course, African Americans were not the only ones harmed by voter suppression but they were the main target in the decades after emancipation. Native Americans have had a unique experience with voter suppression, mostly just because they were not given citizenship along with everyone else born in the United States, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The first sentence of the 14th Amendment reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” But Native Americans were mostly living on reservations which were considered semi-independent “Indian territory” so they were not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States. So, even though they were born here and, if anyone should be “grandfathered in” it would be the Native Americans, most did not receive citizenship and, thus, the right to vote until 1924.
Today, there are a few hot topics that come up when talking about voting rights. One is the question of whether felons should be allowed to vote. If you are convicted of a felony, then in most states you are not allowed to vote until you have finished out your parole or probation, which can be years after you are released from prison. In some states, your voting rights are restored automatically when your probation is up, but in others, the former felon has to petition the government to restore their voting rights, something that many people don’t know they have to do, let alone how to do that. People in support of broader former-felon voting rights argue that this process of restoring their rights should be easier. And since people of color are disproportionately convicted of felonies and sentenced for longer, it can have a similar effect as Jim Crow laws in the pre-1965 South.
Currently, there are other voter suppression tactics being used around the country. The most famous one is in Georgia, where the state is purging its voter rolls. For example, they are removing people who haven’t voted in the past few elections, meaning that those people might decide to vote this year, show up, and find out that even though they had been legitimately registered, they now aren’t. Over 50,000 people have been denied voter registration because of inconsistencies in their application – often just a misspelled middle name or a missing hyphen. 70% of those being denied are black (when they are only 30% of the state population, in case you were wondering.) Oh right, and the guy running for governor is currently the Secretary of State, which means that he oversees all voting systems in the state. And his opponent is a black woman. But I’m sure this is all just a coincidence.
The biggest issue being talked about today regarding voting is Voter ID laws. Currently, 34 states have laws requiring voters to show some form of identification when they vote. 16 states and DC don’t have any requirement, meaning that people can go vote without showing an ID document. Often they have to verify their identity in some other way, like providing personal information or signing an affidavit instead.
I’ll be honest, I was shocked when I learned that 16 states don’t make you show any form of ID when you vote. It makes a lot of sense to me that you should have to show some official form of identification when you vote. However, the issue arises when states limit what counts as “official identification.” A lot of states have a long list of official documents you can use to prove your identity, including utility bills, bank statements, and paychecks, in addition to the standard Driver’s License or passport.
However, some states are really cracking down on Voter ID and limiting people’s options to just a few government-issued photo ID documents, like a Drivers’ License or a Passport. This makes it more difficult for people who don’t drive or travel to foreign countries – in other words, poor people – to vote. Could they go get a Drivers’ License? Sure. But it provides one more obstacle to voting. And that obstacle includes taking a day off work – which many of them can’t afford to do – to go sit in the DMV for hours, maybe even having to come back a second time because they got to the front of the line and were told that they had filled out Form 1099-B when they needed to fill out Form 1099-C. We’ve all been there, right? But it’s a luxury to be able to take a day off work and spend it at the DMV. And for many people, the cost of losing a day’s work outweighs the ability to vote. It’s sort of like a new, round-a-bout poll tax.
An especially infuriating example is happening right now in North Dakota. Native Americans who live on reservations do not have a traditional address; typically they have a P.O. box instead. But North Dakota just changed their Voter ID laws to say that your identification has to link you to a street address, which these people don’t have. But it’s OK! Because the federal government issues Native Americans living on reservations official identification cards. So it’s fine!
Except. That it’s not. Because North Dakota has specifically said that these reservation ID cards – again, issued by the federal government – do not count as Voter ID. Let’s just let that sink in for a moment. But, “don’t worry!” says the federal government. You can just go get another ID from the federal government. “Trust us,” says the federal government.
For this to totally make sense, I need to quickly tell you the story of the Sioux tribe in North Dakota. Here we go…
As settlers started passing through their land in the 1800s, they signed a treaty with the federal government where the government said that the Sioux would retain their land “as long as the river flows and the eagle flies.” Cool. Just three years later, the first war broke out between the U.S. and the Sioux Nation. The war broke out because a U.S. soldier shot and killed their chief while trying to settle a dispute over a cow. Yeah. At the end of that war, they signed another treaty with the federal government in which they promised that their sacred land, the Black Hills, would be exempted from white settlement forever. And then four years later gold was discovered in the mountains of the Black Hills, white people descended upon the sacred land. More fighting broke out, including the Battle of Little Bighorn where the Sioux, led by Sitting Bull, totally demolished Custer’s army. Then there was the Massacre at Wounded Knee, during which the U.S. military killed hundreds of native women and children. Then in 1887, the Dawes Act forcibly carved up the native land into private property, a lot of which was sold off to private investors.
At some point, we decided it would be a good idea to carve four of our presidents’ faces into the side of a mountain in the sacred Black Hills – that’s where Mount Rushmore is. Cool. In 1980, over a century later, the Supreme Court decided that – oops – the federal government had in fact totally screwed over the Sioux Nation and so they offered to pay the tribe for the land they had taken. But the Sioux refused. And they continue to refuse. The money is sitting in a trust fund now totaling over $1 billion but the natives don’t want it – they want their land. Oh right, and this land was also where the Dakota Access pipeline is now running through sacred land at the Standing Rock reservation, leaking oil into their only water source as we speak.
So yeah. The most extreme Voter ID laws are clearly discriminating against groups of people who have already been historically discriminated against, especially with regards to voting. It would be like going back to Alabama before 1965 and saying, “Well just study up on all of U.S. government before you go vote so that you can pass the test!” or, “Just pay the poll tax, even though it’s the equivalent of half a month’s salary!” It’s easy for us to say, “Well just go to the DMV and get the right ID!” But that would be missing the point entirely.
Why You Should totally Vote
Look, there are a ton of reasons not to vote. Between redrawing district lines and the electoral college during presidential years, it can be easy to think that your vote won’t count as much if you live in a place controlled by the other side. You have to register far in advance – in a lot of states, like Texas, you can’t just walk up on election day and say, “Ballot please!” And Election Day is on a Tuesday. What? Tuesday is the most non-day of all of the days.
Election Day falls on a Tuesday because it used to be the best day for farmers. They needed a day to travel to the polls, a day to vote, and a day to get back – all without interfering with Sunday church and market day near the end of the week. But, we are no longer a nation of farmers, much to Thomas Jefferson’s dismay. We are a nation of people who don’t have to leave our house anymore to get toilet paper. In fact, I have two different apps on my phone right now that I could push and make toilet paper appear at my door. What a world.
All of these factors combined with general apathy make our voter turnout pathetically low. Only 58% of eligible voters voted in the 2016 presidential election. 42% of Americans didn’t care enough to decide WHO OUR PRESIDENT WAS GOING TO BE.
But here’s the good news: because voter turnout is normally low, your vote matters even more. And getting one, three, ten friends to vote is a big deal. And, your vote REALLY matters in a midterm year when the elections are focused on local and state politics, which, frankly, is where the vast majority of decisions get made that matter to your daily life.
If you’re a woman and you don’t vote, may Susan B. Anthony haunt your waking moments for all of eternity. If you’re a person of color, think about the men and women who walked past white supremacists with guns to get to the voting booth – although, unfortunately, you may not have to imagine too hard.
So… VOTE! Obviously.