Despite a slow return to normalcy, institutions are still falling apart, workers are still losing their jobs, and education is still being reshaped as doctors, politicians, and scientists still scramble for solutions. During a vital election year, all American citizens have been asked an unprecedented question: should they gamble their safety to exercise their right to vote? Does their single vote really matter?
The answer is easy: yes. A matter of one vote can make a difference. The popular argument here is that every vote combines to make an impact. However, while this is valid, certain cases show that one vote in itself – without adding up with any other votes – can truly determine an election. In fact, in 2018, Kentucky Representative Jim Glenn won by one vote. Likewise, in 2002, Washington Representative Ed Mitchell won by merely one vote. In the face of devastation caused by this pandemic, we must exercise our most sacred right, and considering the current inadequacies of the USPS, voting in person or dropping off a mail-in ballot at a local drop-box is the most viable option. In the history of this nation, our right to vote alone has always been at the core of our American democracy, and since our country’s founding, marginalized groups have had to risk their lives to visit the polls. Today, we all have a common illness keeping us at home. However, it is our duty to band together and vote.
The representation we enjoy today was once a quiet fantasy. Colonial Americans began to make this dream a reality when creating a nation built by and for the people. Colonists were inspired by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and his profound belief in the right to life, liberty, and property.1 Thomas Jefferson modified this idea and declared that the United States would preserve the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty” and, deliberately in place of property, “the pursuit of Happiness.2”
For Jeffersonian Republicans, representation meant everyone shared in the power of the government, and the only way to ensure this shared power was to expand the pool of people eligible to elect those who would represent them on a federal level. Jefferson worked to create universal white male suffrage by inspiring states to abolish property requirements for voting. Although Jefferson was paradoxical – preaching “radically” liberal ideas while owning over three-hundred slaves and inspiring Republican Motherhood, which kept women out of the political sphere3 – he is proof that since the foundation of our nation, one’s right to vote has been in direct correlation with their pursuit of individual merriment.
Those who were not included in the initial push for universal suffrage continued to echo the belief that one’s personal satisfaction manifests itself in one’s right to vote. “The power of the ballot we need in sheer defense, else what shall save us from a second slavery?4” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the years following the Civil War. After the passing of the 19th Amendment, Carrie Chapman Catt wrote “That vote has been costly. Prize it! The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense, a prayer.5” Both knew the struggles their predecessors underwent to grant them the power of voting.
It was not until Black Americans were recognized as citizens that voting even became a possibility. The issue of slavery plagued our nation for decades until the fervor of the Civil War incited its collapse. With a Union victory in 1865, Republican leaders worked to sew the nation back together; as an initial step, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, legally abolishing the abhorrent practice of explicitly enslaving human-beings. However, despite the glamour of earnest change like the one brought about shortly after the Thirteenth Amendment, one must recognize that basic rights such as suffrage were not immediately granted after such landmark legislation. Even after the Fourteenth Amendment, which “guaranteed” equal rights by recognizing every person in the United States as a protected citizen, politicians found ways to evade the law, and the Supreme Court often upheld oppression disguised as states’ rights. The Slaughterhouse Cases were one such example, ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment only applied to national citizenship rights, meaning states could continue to deny citizens the right to vote through poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and other discriminatory practices. The ruling also reinforced the continued denial of Native Americans’ right to vote – a right only granted after the 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act.
Similarly, cases such as U.S. V. Anthony and Minor V. Happersett explicitly denied women the right to vote. Nevertheless, despite these barriers, the continued pressure of suffragettes – starting with the Seneca Falls Convention, all the way until the passing of the 19th Amendment – significantly changed the role of women in America. Early activists challenged the Cult of Domesticity, arguing women, even if they choose to complete domestic tasks, could become involved in politics. Since then, feminism has transcended into an unstoppable force, and through sweat and tears women have achieved their share of power.
Today’s widespread coronavirus challenges universal suffrage similarly to how oppression has challenged it in the past. As a country, we must take action, for voting is as important – if not more important – today as it has been throughout every era of American history. It is the one sliver of representation we are afforded; it is a right generations of Americans have fought for us to have. Fundamentally, it ensures equal power in our democracy, and with equal power comes an equal ability to pursue happiness. Yet the term happiness is subjective, and unfortunately, unlike life and liberty, one’s personal definition of happiness cannot always be guaranteed. However, through one’s right to vote, one’s ability to demand and pursue the happiness they envision is guaranteed. Today, the entire United States is in a deep pursuit of happiness, for the country is both socially and economically depressed. Nevertheless, we will survive – and to do so, we must remember our nation’s values. In pursuit of life, we must love. In pursuit of liberty, we must breathe. In pursuit of happiness – we must vote.
1. Burghardt, Du Bois William Edward, and Shawn Leigh. Alexander. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Amherst: UMass Amherst Libraries, 2018.
2. “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
3. “Minor v. Happersett.” Legal Information Institute. Legal Information Institute. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/88/162.
4. Nash, Margaret A. “Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia.” Journal of the Early Republic 17, no. 2 (1997): 171.
5. News21. “Timeline: Native American Voting Rights.” NonDoc, August 30, 2016. https://nondoc.com/2016/08/27/timeline-native-american-voting-rights/.
6. "No Taxation Without Representation". http://www.stamp-act-history.com/headline/no-taxation-without-representation-2/.
7. “The Expansion of the Vote: A White Man's Democracy.” ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.ushistory.org/us/23b.asp.
8. Tuckness, Alex. “Locke's Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, January 11, 2016. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-political/.
9. Locke, J. (1690). Two Treatises of Government.
10. Jefferson, T. (1776). The Declaration of Independence.
11. Nash, M. (1997). Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia.
12. Du Bois, W. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk.
13. Catt, C. (1870). The Woman Citizen.
*The author does not claim to represent all the opinions of all the members of the Postpartisan in this essay.