1. Our right to vote is precious

    October 28, 2020

    Assuring the right to vote for all citizens is a critical and timely issue for our nation.

    Four years ago, I posted to On the Agenda on the right to vote in the United States and how many American adults have not always been eligible to cast ballots as part of our democratic process. There are situations where voting is made so difficult for eligible voters as to functionally disenfranchise them. I write about this topic again today because these issues remain at the forefront of our national discourse and to emphasize that we cannot take our voting rights for granted. Fair and equitable access to voting is critical to the integrity of our democracy.

    As I wrote in 2016, participation in the electoral process is one of our most important responsibilities. U-M was itself founded under democratic principles more than 200 years ago, established as a university that would serve society and be governed by the people.

    Yet for many groups of American citizens, the right to vote is much newer – and more hard-fought.

    Many of the U-M students who first came to our campus 49 or more years ago would not have been eligible to vote – because they were not yet 21 years old.

    That changed in 1971, with the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. Before that, the 24th Amendment in 1964 eliminated the poll tax, which had in effect prevented low-income people from voting. The 19th Amendment in 1920 gave the right to vote to women. The 15th Amendment in 1870 made it illegal to deny voting rights based on race, color or previous servitude.

    But it wasn’t until the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the U.S. enacted protections needed to enforce the 15th Amendment and further reduce discrimination at the polls.

    We should all take note that the Voting Rights Act’s protections remain contentious to this day. Many states have imposed or seek stronger identification requirements and other measures that would restrict voting, following a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down a critical part of the 1965 act.

    The mechanism for choosing our nation’s president has changed as well – along with the people’s role in the process. Early in our nation’s history, most states chose electors for the Electoral College through their own State Legislatures – not by direct vote of the people. The current system of direct popular vote in each state wasn’t adopted nationwide until after the Civil War.

    Today, 48 of our states have a winner-take-all system for electors based on the popular vote. Maine and Nebraska each allocate two electoral votes based on the statewide popular vote, with the remaining electoral votes to the winner in each Congressional district. This method of distributing electoral votes can on occasion result in the election of a president who had fewer total votes than the second-place candidate. Indeed, that is what happened in 2016.

    We must not forget that the right of our citizens – of all citizens – to elect our president has evolved over time. For many, during much of our history, it simply didn’t exist.

    Over the decades and generations, many U.S. citizens had to fight for the right to vote.

    They assembled in protest, marched on our streets, crossed bridges in the face of oppression and sued in the courts – and too often, they were assaulted or killed by those who would deny their rights.

    These sacrifices are an important reminder that our right to vote is precious.

    We must also remember that many people who are affected by the outcome of presidential elections and who wish to vote do not have full options for casting votes, including those who live in U.S. territories, some people with felony convictions, and those who face barriers to citizenship.

    Professor Ellen Katz of our Law School further notes that there are 350 pending cases across the nation on election administration and who gets to have their votes counted.

    Our Edward Ginsberg Center has information about voting for all three of our campuses. Additionally, our Democracy and Debate theme semester has multiple opportunities to learn and engage, and our International Center has information on understanding U.S. elections for international students.

    At the University of Michigan, student voter turnout on the Ann Arbor campus was 44.7 percent in the 2016 election, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement by Tufts University. The rate amongst the more than 1,000 institutions participating in the survey was 50.4 percent.

    Our mission at the U-M is to develop “leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” Voting assures you the opportunity to do both.

    I hope everyone in the U-M community votes on Nov. 3.