Ambassador John Campbell's Remarks
Elections: The American Experience
217 Years since the First American Election and the
Work for Universal Suffrage Continues
August 8, 2006, 11:05 a.m.
Democracy is not an easy process.
In a speech to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1795, Fisher Ames, a federalist politician, said of democracy: "A monarchy is like a merchantman. You get on board and ride the wind and tide in safety and elation but, by and by, you strike a reef and go down. But democracy is like a raft. You never sink, but your feet are always in the water."
It can also be said that the road to democracy is like a journey. And, like any journey worth taking, the road is rarely smooth. Often there are a lot of bumps and even a few treacherous turns. But if we stay true to the road, we can, at length, reach our destination.
For Americans, that goal, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, is a "government of the people, by the people and for the people." For all the people, regardless of race, color, ethnic background, age or gender. In the U.S., as well as elsewhere, a democracy is made up of many parts - federal, state, local, executive, legislative, judicial. Each part is important if a democracy is to succeed.
Today I want to focus on elections. My academic training is in history, so I want to share with you a look at the historical process by which all Americans acquired the right to vote. For the last 217 years, since its first presidential election, America has been striving to get democratic elections right, and yet the work never ends. It took us 182 years, in fact, just to get universal suffrage.
My choice of subject this morning is not entirely unrelated to the fact that elections in 2007 will be a milestone in this country's journey toward democracy. We are fellow pilgrims on that road, and so Nigeria might find of interest our own experience in working through how elections can become the genuine voice of the people.
The first election on America's soil took place in 1619, in my home state of Virginia - the first English colony in the Western Hemisphere, and some 170 years before we ratified our current constitution. At that time the vote was limited to free land-owning white males. Women, slaves, Native Americans, landless white men - the majority of the population - had no say in the government. Nevertheless, the right to vote was more widely spread in the colonies than in England, the mother country, where there were stricter property requirements. By 1789, after the Revolutionary War, despite the fact that many non-landowners, women and minorities had given their lives for independence, voting in that first presidential election was still limited to free land-owning white males.
Now, as you know, it was the individual states that come together to create our central government, not the other way around. The states existed before the United States, and they are the basic building blocks of governance. Here, in the US, voting has always been primarily a State responsibility rather than a Federal one. The Federal constitution may set out some of the rules that establish broad perimeters, but each state decides who votes and how votes are to be conducted. So it was that earlier expansion of voting rights came from the States and not the federal government.
In 1807, the state of New Jersey was the first to take away the land owning requirement for men to vote. As the US, a new republic, strove to define its new democracy, the men who could vote gradually came to recognize that the right to exercise that vote should belong to all men. This process was painful, however, and generated a lot of debate and even violence on the state level. But nevertheless, by 1850 all states had revoked the land owning requirement for voting, and suffrage - for white males - was universal.
Other changes in voting rights would not come so easily. Not long after, in 1861 our country was at war - North against South. Brother against brother, as the books say.
A key reason for that war - slavery.
And the great end to that war brought freedom to all the enslaved men, women and children in the South, but also in formerly slave states that had remained in the Union. After the war, three amendments were added to the American constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment gave equal protection under the law for all men, black or white. And, importantly, the 15th Amendment gave all men, regardless of race or prior servitude, the right to vote, to have a say in the government that could influence their lives and happiness.
By 1870, then, suffrage was theoretically available to all American men. But the road to universal suffrage was a long one for America. And in 1870 we were barely halfway there.
Over half the population could not vote - women and Native Americans - and for those that had the vote, exercising that right was not always so easy. American women had long sought the right to vote, for a say in the laws that governed them. Even at the time of the drafting of our declaration of independence from Britain in 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, one of the drafters at the constitutional convention: "In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. … If particular care is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."
By 1860 women were actively seeking suffrage across the Union. These same women were active in the movement to abolish slavery and put their own aspirations for equal rights on hold to help in the fight. At the end of the Civil War they expected that the new laws would not only grant the right to vote to all men but to all women as well.
But prejudices against women ran too deep. American men felt that they were protecting women's "delicate sensibilities."
For, it was believed at the time that women were simply too different from men to deal with political issues - in a sense women were seen as living on a different sphere of humanity where their focus was limited to the home and child rearing. Politics was men's stuff. In 1901, former president Grover Cleveland put it this way: "Sensible and intelligent women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours."
Women were not altogether excluded from public life, but any public role was dependant on "lenient" husbands or fathers, and of course the ability of the family to hire servants to maintain their household duties. Women's suffrage and political causes were commonly portrayed in the press as simply an amusement of bored wealthy women. Not surprisingly, those women that truly had the most independence in 19th Century America were wealthy - usually landowning - widows.
The first state to give women full suffrage was Vice President Dick Cheney's home state of Wyoming. The year was 1869. Slowly other states caught on, and by 1918 fifteen states had given women the right to vote. But it wasn't until after World War I, in 1920, that women - black and white - first obtained full suffrage in America. Unfortunately, although they had the right to vote, societal factors still prevented women from exercising that right.
The strong stigma against female involvement in politics and the lack of female education were significant impediments for women's rights. And so it would be another 75 years before women began voting in the same numbers as men. In 1924 Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Rights Act which finally gave Native Americans (commonly called American Indians) the right to vote. It would take another 32 years for Native Americans to actually exercise this new right in all the states in the union.
As I mentioned earlier, each state in the US has its own voting laws. For black men and in 1920, black women, this had enormous impact. Slavery may have been abolished, and all men and women may have been extended the vote, but attitudes toward blacks in the South would not change overnight. In many of the southern states in America, leaders found other ways of preventing blacks from voting.
Voter registration amongst blacks in southern states ran below 30% well into the twentieth century.
Nevertheless, then Governor of New York and one time candidate for president, Al Smith, said, in 1927: "All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy." And Governor of Illinois and two time candidate for president, Adlai Stevenson, said, in 1952: "Self-criticism is the secret weapon of democracy, and candor and confession are good for the political soul." The civil rights movement took these ideas to heart, advocating for change through peaceful protest and through the court system. They had the added benefit of acting in a time when, in the context of the unpopular war in Vietnam, Americans were questioning traditional ways of thinking. With the help of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Americans were, in the words of President Bush, "called to account when we didn't live up to our ideals." And with perseverance, they were able to convince the American people that equal rights are inherently American.
Another great American of that time, Thurgood Marshall, began his career fighting in the courts for the rights of black Americans and later brought his experiences to play as the first black Justice of the US Supreme Court. One Justice said of Marshall that he saw the "deepest wounds in the social fabric and used law to help heal them."
Upon presenting the voting-rights bill to a joint session of Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson put it this way: "At the real heart of the battle for equality is a deep seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends not on the force of arms or tear gas but depends upon the force of moral right - not on recourse to violence but on respect for law and order."
President Johnson went on to say: "The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men."
In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, outlawing registration and voting practices that discriminate against black Americans and other minorities. And while the logistics of voting would still be left to the states, the Voting Rights Act allowed the federal government to intervene when that right was being violated.
In 1965 there was one last group that was prohibited from voting. They were the ones that were particularly affected by the Vietnam War. These were the 18, 19, and 20 year old men that were being drafted to fight but could not vote because the voting age for most states in the U.S. was 21. And so, in 1971, the 26th Amendment was passed, giving the right to vote to all men and women, 18 and over. It took 182 years to get to this point.
182 years from land-owning white males to suffrage for all citizens of the United States over the age of 18 - regardless of gender, race, ethnic background or color. It was a long and difficult process, but, as anyone that studies US elections can see, there is still work to be done; logistical problems to solve; voter apathy to address. For, as I pointed out earlier, democracy is an ongoing process; it does not end with the passing of a law.
One issue addressed heavily in the federal courts in the 1990s was gerrymandering. This mainly affects congressional elections. Gerrymandering is the means by which congressional district boundaries can be drawn to favor one party over the other. This can have racial undertones as well, with some districts being drawn to split the effectiveness of the vote of a minority group. The benefit of a democracy with checks and balances is that the courts can overturn legislative actions in such cases.
Right now in America, we see states addressing the issue of voting itself, the mechanisms and the logistics of ensuring that every person who so wishes can register, vote, and be certain that his or her ballot is counted. Over the decades, voters have requested and been given the right to vote, not just for presidents, congressman and governors but state legislatures, city councilman, education boards, judges, justices of the peace, state legislation, bonds, and other positions and legislation. This multiplicity of choices offered to the voter greatly complicates the ballot itself.
With ballots becoming more and more complicated, the ability to make an election free and fair hinges on the very logistics of creating a ballot that is easily used by every voter. But with voting delegated to the states, in America we have as many types of ballots as there are states. A lot has been done since this problem was brought to light during the 2000 election, but so much more work remains. This is a problem we have not yet solved, but we are working on it.
Voter turnout after the 1965 Voter Rights Act was passed was at an all time high. Blacks and other minorities had the right to vote and they meant to exercise it in large numbers. This is reflected in the increase in black politicians elected to office, from just over one thousand in 1970 to over eight thousand in the early 1990s. Since then voter turn out for presidential elections has dropped considerably: from a high of 62% in 1964, to an all time low in 1996 of 49%. This brings us to the issue of voter apathy.
Of eligible voters, the largest group to exercise their right to vote is middle aged, educated, whites - a group very socially similar to those voting in 1789, though now a round up of both genders and of all races. In general, the people most likely to vote have certain characteristics. The largest factors are relatively high levels of education and income.
When comparing voters of the same education level, race and ethnicity accounted for very little in rates of voter turnout. A sense of party identification, interest in politics, and a strong sense of political efficacy are also important characteristics that contribute to voter turnout. So, those people contacted by political campaigns and get-out-the-vote drives are more likely to vote than those that are not.
If we look at voter turnout by age, the lowest turnout is among young people under 30. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that many young people are still in the process of developing a strong sense of party identification and interest in politics.
So why after all this struggle aren't other groups exercising their right to vote, and why are even the historically privileged classes exercising that right in lower numbers? Several explanations have been proposed for the drop in voter participation. One view regarding the drop in voting is that it is the result of the decline in the average voting age of the population in the 1970s, a reflection of the baby boom some twenty years earlier, combined with the extension of the right to vote to 18-20 year olds. If this is true, than, as this group of baby boomers ages, we should see an increase in voter turnout.
Another explanation may be the decline of the strength of the electorate's party identification. As the two main political parties in the US are seen to become more and more centrist, some voters don't perceive a real choice between the candidates. Yet another explanation is the perception by voters that their vote simply doesn't count.
Although the 2000 elections showed just how important every single vote can be, voter turnout in 2004 only increased by 5%. There are still large groups of voters who feel as though they are not being heard. Get out the vote drives try to help people to see the value in every vote.
As John Quincy Adams, the 6th president of the US and the eldest son of John Adams, the 2nd US president, said: "Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost."
A significant problem that has always affected voter participation is a lack of information. Many eligible voters simply don't pay attention to what is going on in politics and as such don't feel compelled to vote. So, having heard something of our own struggles, perhaps you can understand why Americans are so sympathetic and supportive of Nigeria's efforts to strengthen its own election process.
The achievement of free and fair elections involving all citizens has been for us a struggle that lasted almost two centuries, and still we are striving to get things right. America stands by Nigerians, our fellow pilgrims on the road to democracy and the rule of law, to help where we can as you work through the registration and election process, but always, only at your invitation.
And what happens in Nigeria is crucial to democracy in Africa. During his recent visit to Nigeria, as a member of the National Democratic Institute's international pre-election delegation, the former president of Botswana, Sir Ketumile Masire, pointed out: "All of Africa will be looking to Nigeria in 2007. In your success is Africa's success."
And as he also said, your friends in Africa and throughout the world only wish you the very best.