On suffrage and disenfranchisement

I was visiting my grandfather yesterday, a treasured source of seemingly endless knowledge. My grandmother, mother and some aunts and a cousin were there as well. In the course of conversation, Granddad suddenly with much gravity wished to impart something he’d recently become aware of: everyone is (or should be) rather familiar with our nation’s history in terms of Women’s Suffrage, which wasn’t obtained until 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment.

My grandfather told us that he discovered that for a brief period of time long before that, between 1790 and 1807, New Jersey had been the one and only state to allow women to vote, provided they were unmarried and property owners. Still, women could vote in New Jersey back in 1776! Why didn’t I already know this?

And why did they lose that right in 1807? In 1806, there was a vote on where to put the new Essex County courthouse, Newark or Elizabethtown. Things began civilly but quickly dissolved into rampant fraud with Newark bringing in people from out of town to fatten their numbers, people voting at multiple places, women and girls voting more than once, and even men and boys dressing as women so as to cast yet more votes for Newark. Newark won this vote. Elizabethtown contested the results, citing fraud and successfully petitioned the legislature to void the election. Following this, a new amendment to the election law was voted in by a Mr. Condict, a 1797 Republican representative begrudging women for voting for his opponent. This amendment struck down women’s right to vote in New Jersey, his reasoning being that women (but don’t forget the men dressed as women, and the blatant multivoting) were to blame for the voting fraud over the new Essex courthouse. The subsequent law passing in 1807 restricted the vote to white males, thus providing a “solution” to voter fraud by tightening the qualifying criteria.

It seems to me a lesson can be learned here. A flawed logic (disenfranchisement) was enacted to combat a problem (voter fraud), not because it was an appropriate solution (didn’t solve voter fraud), but because it accomplished small selfish gains (eliminated black sheep demographic, vote the way he wanted it) under the guise of an overall good.

I think that it’s good to rethink policies that don’t work. Adaptability and change are good for growth. It’s what makes our country strong. But in any situation, if your solution to a given problem involves eliminating a particular demographic element, it’s not the right solution, and maybe you’re not asking the right question in the first place.

Granddad found this story an interesting historical fact and an appalling one because it is so under-acknowledged in schoolbooks and histories, as if to say it’s unimportant. Women enjoyed a right to vote in New Jersey over 200 years ago, and that right was taken away, only to be fought for again for 100 years before it was restored at a national level. And that’s only women’s suffrage. We’ve a long history of disenfranchising other groups as well, but that’s a story for another time.

Following this last election, hearing stories about the long lines in Florida and issues in other states, I think we need to be vigilant that the policies we hold in place to keep our votes safe and accurate are not in some clumsy way barring some people from their right to vote.

Meanwhile, my grandfather thought it was important to share that story with us. His eyes teared up as he asked, “I wonder if those women who fought for that right (to vote) … if they had known how long they’d have to fight before they won it … I wonder if they might have given up?”

I said, no, I think that’s one of the beautiful things about people, that when something is so amiss, they won’t give up. Even if one individual grows tired, there’s someone else, and someone else. A thing like that doesn’t die out. I think there is hope.

And I think this holds true for all sorts of issues, not just suffrage. Even when progress seems so very slow, I think there’s still hope.


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