In any democracy, the question of who gets to vote has important implications for a group’s power and voice within a society.
Voting has taken place within modern America since at least 1607 when the English established their first permanent settlement at Jamestown. At that time, six men from among the colony’s 105 settlers participated in electing Edward Wingfield as president.
While a 5.7% voting rate among colonists may sound like a dismal start to what would become our nation, those six men represented 100% of eligible voters.
In the United States’ first presidential election, held in 1788–89, there were 43,782 popular votes cast from a population of 3 million. Incidentally, “only 6 of the 10 states casting electoral votes chose electors by any form of popular vote.”
At that time, of course, the constitution didn’t provide any guidelines on who could vote. By convention, only white male property owners over the age of 21 had the right to vote. That was the popular understanding of “the people” at the time.
Since then, our definition has expanded.
In 1870, the 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote, and in 1920, the 19th amendment allowed women to vote as well. Then, in 1971, amongst the protests of the Vietnam War, the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18.
So throughout our history, our understanding of who are “the people” and who should be allowed to vote has shifted.
And each expansion of voting rights has been met by skepticism by those in power.
In Some of the Reasons Against Woman Suffrage, Francis Parkman argued “Whatever liberty the best civilization may accord to women, they must always be subject to restrictions unknown to the other sex, and they can never dispense with the protecting influences which society throws about them.”
You can perhaps imagine some of Parkman’s supporting points: “everybody knows that the physical and mental constitution of woman is more delicate than in the other sex.”
In his five page pamphlet, Parkman argues over and over again that women are not fit to vote, that most do not want the vote, that giving them the vote would destroy the moral fabric of our society, that the right to vote is a “supreme device for developing the defects of women” which “demolish[s] their real power to build an ugly mockery instead.”
This history is particularly compelling, because as the definition of “the people” continues to expand, we continue to see similar arguments.
People under 18 shouldn’t vote because they aren’t capable of being informed voters. They shouldn’t have the right to vote because most young people don’t care about voting. They shouldn’t have the right to vote because it is our job to protect them and nurture them – giving them the right to vote would be like letting them vote on whether to have cake for dinner.
But such arguments have proven to be flawed.
Those are the rationalizations of a society that has gotten used to putting a segment of the population in it’s “proper” place. Changing that place may disrupt social norms, but history has shown that change to always be for the better.