This Guy in 1968 !
Richard Milhous Nixon
When did America become a democracy? And therefore, who was the first democratically elected President?
It is much later than you might think!
America, declaring independence in 1776, wasn’t technically a fully participatory democracy until 1965. This was the year that Congress passed the Voting RIghts Act, which finally declared that state sanctioned “voter disenfranchisement” or prejuidice towards certain classes of people, was illegal.
The Act ended individual States ability to prevent certain classes of people from voting. Which many southern states had long done.
For 189 years – the majority of the 244 years that the United States has existed – America wasn’t a democracy at all it could be argued. Not as we in parliamentary democracies would define or think of a democracy anyway. Because unlike in many Western countries, the process to elect America’s leader has almost nothing to do with the national government of the country. Americans elect their leader, not in one single election run by the federal government, but in 50 separate and autonomous elections held in each of the 50 states.
Each state has control over the elections in that state. The State can choose the President by electronic voting or by paper ballots, or even voters drawing straws if they want to. It is up to them. Ohio’s election mechanisms therefore, might look totally different to Alabama’s.
An important concept in American politics, totally foreign to many places, is “voter eligibility”. In New Zealand we don’t even think about who is allowed to vote. Everyone votes right? You just enrol – a 3 minute process online – turn up on election day and tick a box. Even prisoners have enjoyed the right to vote at some junctures in NZ’s history. (they currently don’t have the right if they’re serving longer sentences.)
America is different. Of critical importance, EACH STATE CAN DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES WHO CAN VOTE AND WHO CAN NOT. Many states have imposed some sort of test or eligibility standard in order to prevent blacks (historically), poor people or minorities from voting. This meant that more wealthy and powerful people had a greater say in government than they otherwise should have.
Typical historical examples of how some people (otherwise fully elligible) in America have been prevented from voting include,
1) Imposing Poll taxes – requiring voters to pay a tax as a prerequisite to voting. Blacks and /or the poor disproportionately fail this requirement, meaning wealthy people’s vote will be disproportionately more powerful.
2) Literacy tests – requiring lawfully eligible voters to spell difficult words. Whites perhaps, would either get simple words or not have to spell anything. Again, less educated people will lose their vote in society.
3) Unanswerable questions – one of the most infamous examples being the requirement for certain people to answer “how many bubbles in a bar of soap? ” before being allowed to vote. THIS IS NOT MADE UP. See the link below of an Alabama historian discussing this voting requirement.
4) Electoral roll purges – both major parties in America have regularly engaged in legal “purges” of the electoral rolls in order to remove voters who have defaulted on a loan repayment or housing mortgage payment. (think how many people that would remove from the rolls after the 2008 financial crisis).
Electoral roll purging disproportionately affects the same sections of society that all the other disenfranchisement measures do. Unemployed, poor people etc
5) Disenfranchisement of prison populations.
Human Rights Watch reports,
“… the scale of felon disenfranchisement in the United States is unparalleled: an estimated 3.9 million U.S. citizens are (legally) disenfranchised (ie: prevented from voting).
Due to laws that may be unique in the world, in fourteen (14) states even ex-offenders who have fully served their sentences remain barred for life from voting, even for relatively minor offences and even for first time offenders”.
6) Prohibition on Jury duty – the almost 4 million Americans from disenfranchised minorities lose another human right we all take for granted … the right to participate in the criminal justice system, primarily, through the right to judge your peers in a court of law as a jury member. The status of being disenfranchised in America prohibits you from being selected to sit on a court jury.
So, if juries in America contain disproportionately higher number of white people, (as their prisons contain disproportionately more non – whites) who is possibly going to be disproportionately convicted and sent to jail ?
The prison populations of America – the highest in the world by numbers and by percentages – are likely to be over-represented by blacks and minorities, as indeed they are.
There are more young black men in US prisons than in College, an alarming statistic.
“VOTER DISENFRANCHISEMENT” is a topic of debate today in parts of the USA, although it’s not widely known about. Every single election right up until 2020 generates court cases by people who are alledgedly victims of voter disenfranchisement. Great for the lawyers.
You can read much more about the history of “voter disenfranchisement” or “voter suppression” in America and I’ll post more about it another time too.
But the passing of the important Voting Rights Act, 1965 was an important step in the United States becoming a full participatory democracy.