Over the past few months, the world’s attention has been focused on the struggle among Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa toward the first, difficult steps of political freedom. Unfortunately for them, the road to democracy will be difficult at best, and we may not like the results. Americans understand this, as our own path to voting rights for all was long and bloody.
When the nation was founded, not everyone was able to vote, as religious clauses and property requirements limited full enfranchisement. The rights and privileges of citizenship were limited to a few land-owning, white males.
But, in the 1850s, provisions requiring citizens to own property and pay taxes in order to vote were eliminated. Not long after the end of the Civil War, black men were extended the right to vote with the 15th Amendment. Women would have to wait another half-century until the 19th Amendment in 1920 assured their right to vote.
Along the way, Southern states like Florida used an array of devious mechanisms to deny voting rights to certain groups. This included literacy tests, grandfather clauses, poll taxes, “whites only” primaries and outright intimidation.
During the 1960s, the nation moved closer to becoming a full democracy. The 24th Amendment in 1964 outlawed underhanded efforts to limit voting, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act assured the right to vote to all citizens. Subsequent years saw the voting age lowered to 18 and efforts to promote voter registration.
It has been two centuries of difficult progress, but America is right to be proud of its political maturation, which is why Floridians should be up in arms over the actions of their leaders. Paradoxically, while America watched the drama of freedom unfold during the Arab spring, Florida’s governor and Legislature were busy weakening the integrity of the state’s election system.
After long opposing election reform, Gov. Rick Scott and Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature, fresh off impressive victories in the 2010 election that gave them full control of the state, suddenly found the issue.
The problem is that their version of reform is anything but.