The American College Dictionary defines "amendment" as "a change for the better." The same dictionary defines "right" as "that which is due to anyone by just claim." The Constitution, the document upon which this country was founded, never guaranteed anyo ne the right to vote, but rather, shifted authority to the states to determine who shall be qualified to vote. The Constitution had to be "changed for the better" before everyone was given to them what should have been granted "by just claim." But even th en, the rights of the people were not immediately fulfilled.
At the outset, the Constitution spoke of the rights and privileges of "persons." At the time of its inception, neither people of color nor women were considered "persons," and therefore were not deserving of full participation in the newly formed democrac y. African Americans were objects of servitude and women were thought lesser qualified to partake in the affairs of state.
Consider the following, the 15th Amendment was adopted in 1870, more than 80 years after the Constitution was signed, and provided that all citizens, regardless of race, color or "previous condition of servitude" should have the right to vote. And in 1920 , more than 130 years after it was signed, the 19th Amendment was adopted extending the right to vote to women. In neither case did the altruistic inclinations of the federal government suddenly arise to correct a past wrong, but in reality, people, men a nd women, protested, sued, went to jail and endured violence until someone listened. Only then did the powers that be move to grant what before had been specifically denied.
Within the past 40 years, something that was due by just claim continued to be restricted by those opposed to sharing the power. Poll taxes, gerrymandering and literacy tests were all used to divide, dilute, or deny the populace access to the ballot box. It wasn't until 1966 that the Supreme Court overruled a 1937 decision that upheld poll taxes. This occurred even after the 24th Amendment, adopted in 1964, which prohibited the levy of a poll tax prior to voting. Still today, districts are redrawn to cont rol the representation of certain populations.
We, as citizens of one of the world's superpowers, a nation founded from the ashes of revolution and built on a foundation of freedom, should never forget that the right to vote was fought for, not given. After more than two centuries of struggle, where m en and women were attacked, beaten, imprisoned and killed, the people of this country cannot seem to grasp the concept that voting is what empowers a nation.
The history of voting rights is fraught with struggle. What we think of as fundamental rights in a free democracy are, in fact, privileges which were wrestled away from the stingy and shortsighted. No one was ever given the right to vote. Many realized th at voting was the ticket to the future and an escape from the past.
To vote was to contribute to the direction of a nation and determine the destiny of its people. Our privilege is only a little over two centuries old. For Bosnia, Russia, Somalia, and Haiti, the privilege was only realized this year. For countries like Rw anda, Cuba, and China, the privilege has yet to be born.
The moral of the story is that those who do not vote ignore centuries of strife and conflict. The toil of a people against the contrived efforts of those who would oppress the weak, poor and disenfranchised, would all be for naught. Some of your predecess ors died for the right you now possess. Do not squander their wish for you to contribute to your future and determine your own destiny. Get out and vote. It means the world to us all.
David H. Benton is a third-year law student, member of the ASUA President's Cabinet and Arizona Student's Association board member. His column, 'Another Perspective,' appears Tuesdays.