Shared freedoms should be honored on Law Day

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 24, 2004

Every year, Law Day n May 1 n reminds us of our heritage of liberty under law. But this year, Law Day has a special emphasis. We're asking all Americans to stand up for democracy and diversity. We're asking them to be involved in the community as the best, the surest way to preserve our democratic form of government, with its underlying principle that the people are in charge.

That emphasis makes sense in an election year. Voting for our elected leaders is the main way we the people make our voices heard.

Yet statistics show that in the last presidential election less than half, only 49.8 percent, of the eligible voting age population voted. That is, of all the citizens 18 and over not disqualified because of having been convicted of a crime, half either did not register or registered but did not vote.

Email newsletter signup

Contrast this with the long, determined struggle to make more and more of our fellow citizens eligible to vote. The voting pool in the early days of the Republic looked much different than it does now. No women were in it, hardly any minorities, hardly any poor people and often not many in the middle class. Thanks to laws in many states that restricted voting to landowners and taxpayers, only about 6 percent of the adult male population had the vote.

The battle to expand the ranks of eligible voters began on a state-by-state basis, and with the fall of property qualifications, by 1850 most males 21 and over were able to vote. But it would still take more than 100 years, several amendments to the Constitution, many new laws, and legal cases going all the way to the Supreme Court to make voting a real possibility for all of our people.

Among the many groups who were denied the vote and had to struggle for it were: African-Americans, especially in the South; Other minorities in many parts of the country; Women; Young people, 18-21, who used to be told that they were old enough to fight their country's wars, but not old enough to vote for their country's leaders.

The long struggle to secure the vote for African-Americans in the South was particularly difficult. It took the dedication of many brave Americans n many risking their lives n to open up the process so that the voices of all the people could be heard.

And in the long struggle for women's suffrage, many brave women n and men too n risked ridicule and went to prison to advance their cause.

It would be ironic indeed if we were to lose this precious right to direct our destiny not to conquest by another country but to apathy from our own people.

For our democracy to grow and prosper, for it to truly live up to the legacy not only of the Founders, but also of those who fought to extend it to all our people, we all have to play our part.