Montana Viewpoint

July 5, 2004 

I am reminded this July Fourth that freedom is an American right that has been more seized than given; more often fought for than granted. The extension of freedom to one group of people means the lessening of power for another, and power is as hard to let go of as freedom is to win.

One measure of freedom is the ability of citizens to establish a government of their own choosing—the ability to vote. Judged by that standard America did not spring forward as a free country immediately after winning our war for independence. But if the promise of America is anything, it is that things can get better. Today all Americans over eighteen years old have the ability to exercise their right to vote, but it’s been a long time coming.

When America was a fledgling country, engaged in a war of independence against the most powerful nation on earth, the voting franchise was determined by the individual states much as it had been in the colonies under British rule. The ability to vote was largely restricted to white, adult males who owned property. A property ownership requirement was in force in North Carolina until 1856.

In some Colonies religious restrictions denied the vote to Catholics and Jews, and there were religious restrictions on voting in some states until 1847.

The effort to secure the right to vote for women began in 1848 with the first women’s suffrage convention in Seneca Falls New York. Although many territories and states had already extended the voting franchise to women (Wyoming Territory 1869; Montana 1914) it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was adopted, finally securing a woman’s right to vote—seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls Convention.

And it was one thing to have the right to vote, but another to be able to exercise it. The 15th Amendment gave Black Americans voting rights, but many states imposed tests that in practice denied them the ability to cast a ballot. The poll tax—which required the paying of a fee before being allowed to vote—was one method that ensured that at least poor blacks could not vote. Poll taxes were made unconstitutional with the passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964.

Another roadblock used was a literacy test proving the prospective voter could read and write. Like the poll tax, it was applied selectively to blacks. Almost a century would pass before a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote was federally enforced with the passage and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

And finally, in 1971 the vote was extended to citizens of 18 years or older with the Passage of the 26th Amendment. Jennings Randolph, a Congressman from West Virginia, first introduced legislation to extend the vote to Americans over 18 in 1942, but it took 29 years and 11 attempts at passage by Randolph before it became reality. It seemed only logical, I suppose, to let people we were asking to give their lives in defense of America to have a say in who led the country.

America started out with an incredible premise and promise of freedom that has been two centuries in the making. The abolition of the requirements of owning property, belonging to a certain religion, race, or sex, and extending the franchise to those between 18 and 21 was not achieved without a long struggle.

Thomas Paine, a guiding force behind the American Revolution and Constitution said it well: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620