It may be easy for many Iowans to take the right to vote for granted.
Polls are open for nearly a month at auditor’s offices across the state, and many counties also host satellite voting stations at libraries, town halls and other community centers; Johnson County is hosting 14 this year, and Linn County has 31. Hundreds of thousands of us have voted by mail from the convenience of our homes this year. If you are waiting until Election Day, you have a full 14 hours to stop by your polling place, and you will walk away with a free sticker. This year in Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids, there even is free bus service that day to help you get there.
Of course, this was not always so. The right to vote has been hard-earned, our foremothers and forefathers spilling literal blood, sweat and tears to secure it.
For the first two decades of our statehood, only white men could vote. Alexander Clark — an influential black leader in Iowa and the nation in the middle and late 1800s — made the case for black suffrage to the Iowa State Colored Convention in February 1868. He brilliantly pointed out black Iowans’ invaluable contributions to the state, not least of which was taking up arms for the Union in the Civil War, which had ended just three years prior.
“Deprived of this (right to vote), we are forced to pay taxes without representation; to submit, without appeal, to laws however offensive, without a single voice in framing them; to bear arms without the right to say whether against friend or foe — against loyalty or disloyalty,” Clark said in a transcript preserved by the State Historical Society of Iowa.
The same year, the Iowa Legislature approved a bill granting black men the right to vote, one of the first states outside the northeast United States to do so.
It would take another half century before Iowa women could go to the polls. The Iowa Equal Suffrage Association successfully lobbied state lawmakers to put forth an amendment to the state constitution enfranchising women, but men voting in a statewide referendum rejected it in 1916. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union published a report alleging widespread voter fraud, including evidence some counties had more votes cast than the number of registered voters, according to documents preserved by the Iowa Women’s Archive.
In 1919, Iowa became the 10th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, with unanimous support in the Iowa Senate and just five detractors in the Iowa House. A year later, the amendment met the three-fourths threshold for state ratification, and women age 21 and older earned the right to vote.
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Even as voting rights expanded, those rights have not always been equally upheld. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 officially prohibited voting discrimination on the basis of race, and it earned support from clear majorities of Republicans and Democrats, more than three quarters of lawmakers in each chamber. Among Iowa’s seven representatives and two senators, just one voted against. Today, one can hardly imagine any landmark legislation gaining such broad bipartisan consensus.
Finally in 1971, states adopted the 26th Amendment, lowering the national voting age from 21 to 18. Like Clark had argued nearly a century before, Americans were persuaded by the argument that those able to defend the nation in war ought to have a voice in which politicians send them there.
We celebrate the enormous progress Americans have made, but we also must recognize the right to cast a ballot is not embedded in our DNA. There always have been detractors seeking to restrict fair representation and erect barriers to the ballot box.
As one pertinent example, Iowa now is conducting a perilous experiment with a voter ID requirement after the Republican-controlled Legislature approved a so-called “voter integrity” law last year. While parts of the law face a court injunction, voters still will be asked to show their identification this Election Day. As we have written before, we are skeptical that voter ID laws address any legitimate problem. Even before full implementation, the law already has sowed mass confusion over voting requirements.
Even worse, voters in some other states face much more stringent restrictions at the polls. With that in mind, it’s imperative for each of us to understand and stand up for our rights as voters. This year, voters without an ID should be asked to sign an oath verifying their identity instead. If other questions arise at your polling place, be sure to demand a provisional ballot. And if problems persist, call your county auditor’s office.
If previous midterm elections are a reliable indicator, just over half of registered voters will cast ballots before the polls close Tuesday. We hope to prove the projections wrong. Iowans fought hard for the right to vote, and now it’s our responsibility to exercise it.
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