The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution removed a loophole left over from the Reconstruction Era: namely that you could require payment of a “poll tax” in order to vote in federal elections. This requirement unduly targeted the African-American community.
First proposed during the Kennedy administration, the 24th Amendment later became law in the first full year of Johnson’s term.
Something like the poll tax and the necessity of its elimination by constitutional amendment shows how deeply entrenched racial attitudes and divides really were. Couched, no doubt, in a desire to have government by “one’s betters” (in the Jim Crow South this meant whites, of course) some state laws had been manipulated in “letter” so as to avoid the “spirit” of the changes wrought by Reconstruction.
While the idea of government by those deemed superior in society has had a longstanding tradition in world history (warriors, kings, nobles, landowners, men, etc.), the direction of American democracy had been steadily heading another way for a long time. For indeed, the logic goes–and rightfully so–that if you are going to have a stake in this society, having the right to vote is essential.
There’s no Downton Abbey-esque Earl of Grantham to lord over us peasants in the United States. We are not supposed to submit to someone because of position, gender, or race. We are supposed to have equal rights. Though it took us a long time to get even here, we are here now.
I realize that extending the franchise as broadly as possible can possibly open the doorway to demagoguery of various shapes and sizes. But then you don’t even need a democracy for a demagogue. You just need a mob and some pitchforks.
Responding to fears of demagoguery with recourse to legal restrictions on voting (the rich, the landowning, the male, the white, etc.) doesn’t really help. Because, in its place you leave behind the demagoguery of the few. A group that decides for itself who is in and who is out. An aristocracy beholden only to itself. This is the logic, I think, of the limited franchise. Though there are-as I’ve mentioned–potential problems inherent in too much democracy, the United States has decided again and again that this is not the way forward. I and so many others (male, female, black, white, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight) can vote and participate in this thing called the United States. Thankfully, we have a voice. And for all the flaws inherent in our system, that voice is more than most people have had throughout recorded history.