In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The amendment prohibited the federal government or the states from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
Congress, controlled by Republicans in the wake of the Civil War, wanted to ensure that the newly freed slaves in the states that had formed the Confederacy would be able to vote.
Six years later, a cynical deal reached at the highest national political levels rendered the amendment toothless.
In return for agreeing not to contest the controversial election of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes as president, Democrats were able to secure the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.
The deal, known as the Compromise of 1876, effectively gave Southern Democrats the renewed ability to cut former slaves and their descendants out of the electoral process.
With federal troops no longer on hand to make certain that the Southern states provided all their citizens with the fair and free exercise of the right to vote, the newly reemergent white power structure took measures, such as literacy tests, to push individual Blacks off the voter rolls.
The states continued to do so until 1965, when the federal Voting Rights Act was passed to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.
As in a century earlier, it would take the power of the federal government to ensure that certain states were not treating some of their residents less equally than others.
These days American citizens throughout the South and in the rest of the nation can vote freely, regardless of their skin color.
But many Americans as recently as Tuesday’s election still ran into, if not outright prohibitions, conditions discouraging them from voting.
In particular, many of them waited in line for hours, sometimes as many as six or seven hours, to vote.
You could see how those with less physical stamina or with daily family obligations at home might not want to, or be able to, wait in line to vote for that long.
The question that kept coming to mind was: Why?
It’s not like this year’s general election, containing the 2020 presidential contest, popped up out of the blue.
Election officials saw this one coming for a long time. They knew it was going to occur on a certain day, and they could anticipate turnout on a par with, if not exceeding, the heaviest presidential election turnouts that they had previously seen.
So, again: Why the long lines?
In past decades, voter turnout often lagged, resulting in hand-wringing newspaper editorials bemoaning the lack of interest among Americans in exercising one of their key rights.
But the 2008 candidacy of Barack Obama, a person of color, for the presidency brought a swarm of voters, many of them formerly unregistered, or registered and missing in action, to the polls—resulting in long lines of voters waiting for hours at once sleepy, now overwhelmed polling places.
In the subsequent presidential elections, long lines and extended waits have become de rigueur at many places in the United States, especially in urban areas.
With four years to plan between elections, officials have had plenty of time to review what happened at the last election in terms of how long voters had to wait and to take steps to shorten that wait to a more-reasonable span of time.
Yet in many places, it apparently didn’t happen.
Solutions exist. Before this year, a number of states, especially in the West, either conducted their elections totally with mail-in ballots, or allowed people to mail in ballots without citing an excuse.
The onset of the pandemic and the accompanying safety concerns this year led more states, such as Massachusetts, to allow the general use of mail-in ballots. Massachusetts and other states already had allowed early in-person voting.
But other states, sometimes citing concerns over (almost nonexistent) voter fraud, continue to refuse to allow no-excuse mail-in ballots.
As a result, national television news was filled night after night with footage of voters waiting outside for hours in long lines, sometimes in difficult weather conditions, to make their way into the polling stations and cast their ballots.
In a nation with so much money, where the exercise of the vote is so crucial to the functioning of its democracy, this is silly at best and a betrayal of faith at worst.
Solution 1: Throw money at the situation. This isn’t 1955 anymore, with the clunky mechanical voting machines and a handful of grandmothers sitting behind tables in school cafeterias to check in the voters.
Open significantly more polling places, and hire and train a lot more people to staff them for Election Day, or for the run-up days of early voting. People are around. They’ll do it.
Solution 2: Mandate the option of mail-in ballots for all 50 states, which puts more pressure on the post office (though veterans there assure those who ask that Election Day is no Christmas in terms of volume) and less on polling workers.
Should states or municipalities plead poor, here is an opportunity for the federal government to provide them with extra money they need to make the voting process—a bedrock of American democracy—go more smoothly.
States run elections, not the federal government. They jealously have maintained their independence in determining how their residents can vote.
That sometimes has proved a blessing—rather than a national voting system, vulnerable to a hacker in one fell swoop, would-be troublemakers confront 50 different systems.
But the nation has a vested interest in making those who wish to vote on national government races—be they for president or the Senate or the House—be able to do so easily and reasonably.
Perhaps Congress and the president should take steps to pass legislation that would mandate certain performance standards to make voting on federal offices easier—and to provide supplementary funding to allow states and municipalities to do so.
That still would leave the states free to let voters stand out in the hot sun or the cold wind for hours in state or local elections.
In any case, federal, state and local governments must take steps to make certain that the crucial right of voting isn’t impeded by outdated, underfunded ways of receiving those votes.