Friday morning, after a thirty-mile-drive on a winding two-lane road through an autumnal landscape, alongside pastures lined with New York Asters and goldenrod, in weather that was sunny only when it wasn't misty, we pulled up behind an attractive building in our courthouse complex. Early voting had begun Thursday, and North Carolina is a closely divided state dominated by gerrymandering where victory often depends on razor-thin margins. We didn't know what to expect in such a hotly contested race, but there were parking spaces and no line - probably because we'd come prepared with umbrellas and power bars in case we had to wait for hours. Inside, we walked straight into the voting area where a large group of cheerful officials had everything safely and cleverly organized. Voting was quick, easy, and painless. It was also free from fear - from the super-strong hand sanitizer that a smiling official handed you at the door, to the Plexiglas dividers between poll workers and voters, to the voting booths that were sanitized as soon as the preceding voter left, to the pencils that were sanitized as soon as you set them down even as you were being handed more hand sanitizer, you felt as if someone with brains and forethought had managed everything so there wouldn't be any mysterious positive tests a few days later. It was very impressive.
As we left, we asked the official who stood by the scanning machine to help if there were a problem how many had voted the first day. He said over 700, and we'd already heard someone say over 100 had voted Friday even though it wasn't even ten when we walked out the door. And this is in a county that, in spite of its size (429 square miles), has a population of less than 28,000. And there were still fifteen days of early voting to go. The news appears to be much the same nationwide - there's a huge surge in both mail-in ballots and early voting.
It looks as if participation in this election is going to be greater than in years. Let's hope so, because in recent decades our voting turnout has been dismal, ranging usually in the mid-50% range. The Christian Science Monitor predicts 2020 turnout will be the highest since 1908, when Republican William Howard Taft defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
Clearly, Americans have traditionally taken voting too much for granted, yet it isn't a given. Even here, different groups have been granted the franchise at different times. After Independence, it was up to individual states to decide who could vote, and the national franchise expanded very gradually:
- 1787 onward - property-owning white men
- 1856 onward - all white men, whether property owners or not
- 1868-1870 - African-American men (Southern states made many efforts to suppress Black vote in spite of Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments)
- 1919 - Native Americans and other racial minority men who had served in World War I
- 1920 - Women who were citizens
- 1924 - Native Americans (many states still disenfranchised them at polls)
- 1952 - Asian Americans
- 1961 - Residents of the District of Columbia (only in Presidential elections)
- 1965 - Voting Rights Act removed discriminatory barriers that kept many people of color from voting.
- 1971 - Voting age lowered from 21 to 18.
- 1993 - National Voter Registration Act streamlined the voter registration process by allowing people to register to vote at DMVs and public assistance centers.
Our right to vote has been earned since the beginning of the republic, by political persistence, press oversight, and the blood shed by all the soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice on distant battlefields to make sure that America remains free so that we can choose to vote or not..
It's good to see the right so dearly bought being so generously exercised.