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Michael Smuksta: Rally to support the right to vote

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A fundamental American freedom is the right to vote.

In contrast to earlier periods in our history that excluded groups from voting based on race, sex or age, today in America any U.S. citizen 18 years and older can vote.

Overall, the arc of the history of voting is to enlarge the voting population. Unfortunately, voting rights are now under attack. In response, the La Crosse County Democratic Party is sponsoring a Voting Rights Rally at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Cameron Park.

From the start of our constitutional order, many states had property requirements to vote. Such restrictions contradicted the emerging American democratic ideals. By 1840, all white males had gained the right to vote.

In 1848, women’s rights advocates challenged the male-dominated political system. The Seneca Falls Declaration urged the women of this nation to secure “their sacred right to the elective franchise.” After a persistent struggle, women gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment in 1920.

After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment granted former male slaves the right to vote. By 1900, Jim Crow legislation teaches us an unfortunate lesson from history—constitutional freedoms gained can be taken away. Southern states devised a variety of discriminatory voting qualifications and imposed this system with violence and terror.

After 1900, The Progressive Movement led the fight to end state legislatures selecting U.S. senators. The 17th Amendment, in 1913, provided for direct popular vote. Initiative, referendum and recall elections increased democratic participation.

The modern Civil Rights Movement produced another important expansion of voting rights with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It required any state with a history of voting discrimination seek federal approval before changing state election laws. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court invalidated this provision in 2013. Since then, court battles emerged over gerrymandering and restrictive voter ID laws.

In the 2010s, state governments have attacked voting rights. Hyper partisan gerrymandering created safe districts and silenced moderate voices. Strict voter ID laws, reductions in the number of polling places, and limits on early voting hours disproportionately affect the working class, minorities and young people. The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is in service to his fake news charge of voter fraud. Its purpose is to create the impression that fraud is widespread, thus requiring more stringent voting restrictions. The Washington Post has characterized voter suppression as the civil rights issue of this era.

Rather than restricting voting rights, we should follow the example of our neighbor to the south, Illinois. Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, recently signed into law voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies. He stated, “The right to vote is foundational for the rights of Americans in our democracy. We as a people need to do everything we can to knock down barriers, remove hurdles for all those who are eligible to vote, to be able to vote.”

Concerned citizens, please join us at Cameron Park at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Voice your opposition to voter disenfranchisement. A friend of mine remarked that if we were asked to advise a developing nation on how to create a legitimate and functioning democracy, would we teach them how to gerrymander, make voter registration and voting more difficult, and engage in the fake news of voter fraud to undermine the integrity of the electoral process? I think not.

Michael Smuksta is emeritus professor of history at Viterbo University.

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