Government for the people by the people. Everyone knows that one, but did you know that The People once meant only Certain People? Rich white men, to be exact. The poor, the uneducated, women, African-Americans, Native-Americans, Catholics and Jews all were prohibited from voting within the United States.
In the early years of this country only one in four people was allowed to vote. That stinks, right?
Even though that seems obvious to us now, it took years of struggle to get it changed. Why so long? Let's take a trip back in time with two kids and ask an expert, Susan B. Anthony, the 19th century pioneer crusader for women's rights and the woman suffrage movement in the United States.
Q. Why couldn't everyone vote from the beginning?
One of the most important voting requirements in the colonies was property ownership. By 1750, most white adult male citizens who owned property could vote. They simply believed back then that men who owned property had a strong interest in good government.
Q: So what's the story on women?
At first, men laughed when women demanded the right to vote. Men said they had the important jobs; they brought home the money. They thought women were there to take care of the house and the children. They didn't think we were smart enough to vote.
You are wrong, we told them. When my friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton held a meeting on women's rights in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, it was considered scandalous. Women fought tirelessly another 72 years _ I was even convicted of violating the voting laws after I had tried to vote in city elections in Rochester, N.Y., in the early 1870s (but I successfully refused to pay the fine!) Finally, in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote.
Q: Why couldn't blacks vote?
Some of them could. Right after the United States was formed, in 11 of the 13 colonies free black men could vote, but those were only black free men, not slaves. Slaves _ almost all the blacks back then _ had no rights at all. After the Civil War, the 14th and 15th Amendments granted full rights to freed slaves, and, for a few years, black men voted regularly. Some were elected, like Josiah Walls in 1870. He represented Florida in the U.S. Congress until 1876.
It didn't take long for most southern states, where slavery had been most prevalent before the Civil War, to strip blacks of their rights again. They were barred from belonging to a political party and could not vote in many primaries. That didn't change until 1944, and then they were kept from voting by forcing them to pay taxes to vote _ called "poll taxes," _ which weren't abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1964.
A year later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to pave the way for more rights for black voters. That Act suspended literacy tests and, after being amended many times, abolished them completely in 1975. but this came at a high price. States did not give up their control over elections easily. Many people died in their effort to bring racial equality to a right most people now take for granted.
Q: Who else couldn't vote?
Blacks weren't the only group discriminated against. Native-Americans, the first people to live here, did not even get the right to vote in every state until 1948.
There were religious restrictions as well. In Rhode Island, Jews were not entitled to vote until 1842.
Q: So why can't kids vote?
Surprisingly, the voting age was never addressed in the Constitution. It was always just assumed 21 was the standard age of voting. It wasn't until 1868 when the authors of the 14th Amendment, giving rights to blacks, referred in passing to 21 as the voting age. It stuck and was considered law.
In 1972 18-year-olds voted for the first time in national elections. Before that, some states had lowered the voting age for state elections. Georgia, in 1943, was the first state to lower its voting age to 18. Kentucky followed in 1955. Hawaii allowed voting at age 20 and Alaska allowed it at 19 when they became states.
Most think it was during the Vietnam War that the question first was raised to lower the voting age to 18. Young men said that if they were old enough to die for their country they should be old enough to vote. Actually, that argument dates to the Civil War. Its popularity grew again during World War II and the Korean War. In 1971 the voting age was lowered to 18. That guarantee became the 26th Amendment of the Constitution.
Q: Who else can't vote?
You can't vote if you're not registered or are judged mentally incompetent. You also can't vote if you have been convicted of a felony and haven't had your civil rights restored.
Q: Why should I vote when I'm 18?
Never take that right for granted. Voting gives you a voice in deciding who should run your country. It's important, too, because low and declining voter turnouts have put the U.S. democratic participation far behind any other industrialized democracy. Although nearly 200-million Americans are eligible to vote, just more than half _ 55 percent _ took advantage of the right in the 1992 presidential election.
Q: So what do I have to do to vote here?
First, you have to be a citizen of the United States and a legal resident of Florida and of the county where you want to register, then you can register with the supervisor of elections and at libraries, banks, malls and several other places. You can even preregister when you are 17 if you are going to turn 18 before an election. As part of the process, you must take an oath to protect and defend the constitutions of the United States and the State of Florida.
Q: How it works in other countries?
In the tiny European nation of Luxembourg, voting isn't just a right, it is a requirement of every citizen. If you don't vote you must send a written excuse and apology to the local government.
In Australia, if you do not vote you could be fined.
In China, there are no elections for people to elect their leaders, except small, local elections. Instead, leaders are selected by the Communist Party.
In South Africa, after 350 years of white domination, blacks _ who make up 75 percent of the population _ voted for the first time last May to elect Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president.
Sometimes the democratic process _ the right to elect your country's leaders _ can get you killed. This year in Colombia, 11 politicians were either kidnapped or killed before the March election.
Next week we'll take a look at the candidates for governor, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush. The page will include short profiles of the candidates, their stands on issues and their responses to questions kids have asked. If you are a teacher interested in receiving classroom sets of low-cost newspapers, you can call our Newspaper in Education department at 893-8138 if you live in Pinellas or Hillsborough county or (800) 333-7505, ext. 8138. If you would like some teaching tips using this X-tra Credit page, call the Timesline number for your area on Page 7D and enter category code 4-NIE (4643).
These stories and other information about the Florida governor's race are also available through the Florida Information Resources Network, a free electronic mail network available to Florida public educators. To access the information, see the Kids Vote section of the group conferencing area, a bulletin board system in FIRN. If you need help getting connected, contact FIRN at (904) 487-0911, (800) 749-3476 or (800) 226-9157.
News researchers: Jenny Deam and Kitty Bennett
Sources: Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections; World Book Encyclopedia; Official Florida Statutes 1993; the New Encyclopedia Britannica