A Not-So Brief History of Elections in America

Recently I was party to an e-mail conversation regarding the lack of voter participation among younger voters. The consensus amongst us was that most younger voters are too busy with general life to give much thought to politics, and that the voting process itself can be daunting and confusing. The next day, Dagmar quizzed my historical knowledge of the voting process. It got me thinking… I didn’t really know as much as I thought I did about the history of voting. So, here I am, researching.

According to the Constitution of the United States of America, Article I, Section 2 (or part of it at least):

“The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

“No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.”

In other words, the Constitution tells us that we get to elect Representatives every two years, and that each states gets one Representative for every 30,000 people. The 30,000 people per Representative, though, aren’t just people – they have to be “free persons.” Native Americans don’t count. The phrase “three fifths of all other persons” makes one pause for thought. Slaves counted as three-fifths of a person.

Section 3 deals with the other house, the Senate.

“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

“…No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.”

This is interesting. What they mean is that each state gets two Senators, but the Senators are not voted into office, they’re chosen by the Legislature. (Obviously, that’s changed – we do have a direct vote on Senators now.

Now for the Presidential procedures, according to the Constitution, Article II, Section 1:

“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

“The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice President.
“The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

Okay, so we get to elect a President for four year terms. Or do we? It certainly sounds like “We The People” don’t particularly get a say in this whole mess… Instead we get to appoint “a number of electors” (the number of which is the total of each state’s Representatives and Senators) to vote. Ahhh… so THIS is where the electoral college came from! We go vote, but our votes don’t particularly mean we’re voting for a President – instead, our votes indicate to our state’s “electors” how THEY should vote. Hmmm…

It’s interesting to note that quite a bit of our Constitution was formed from “The Virginia Plan,” written by James Madison and presented to the Constitutional Convention May 29, 1787 by Edmund Randolph. The Virginia Plan also had two houses, Representative and Senate, but the terms of service were longer. The Virginia Plan also had that goofy “Indians don’t count” clause as well as some people only being worth three-fifths of other people.

In 1791 the Bill of Rights happened. The very first article read:

“Article the first… After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.”

Oddly enough, this article was never ratified.

In 1863 whilst in the process of ending the Civil War and beginning to think of Reconstruction, President Abraham Lincoln was presented with the Wade-Davis Bill. Part of this bill gave freed slaves the right to vote and did away with that silly three-fifths of a person clause. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not sign the bill, opting instead to veto. (Part of the Wade-Davis Bill stated that in order for a state to rejoin the Union over fifty percent of the white male population had to take a loyalty oath to the Union, disavowing the Confederacy. Lincoln thought this was too harsh, and was hoping to get a modified version of the bill passed whereupon only ten percent of the white men in a state had to take the oath.) The harsher Wade-Davis Bill did get passed after Lincoln’s assassination the following spring.

This was followed by the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which stated (almost in entirety):

“Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude—
“Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

So, all the black people get to vote now, right? Well… no. Remember, no women were allowed to vote yet, and for years whites came up with all sorts of goofy plans to keep blacks and minorities from voting.

In 1919, the sixty-year long Suffragette movement came to fruition with the 19th Amendment:


“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution extending the right of suffrage to women.

“Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled (two-thirds of each House concurring therein), That the following article is proposed as an amendment to the Constitution, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislature of three-fourths of the several States.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Shoot, it’s getting late. I’m gonna have to finish this later…

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