(edited to add link & image)
Colleen Mondor over at Chasing Ray has a wonderful post up about teaching and voting; go read it.
OK, are you back? Doesn't that make you want to vote? And, for that matter, to teach history?
Her post is part of an effort she started called "Blog the Vote," in which bloggers are encouraged to blog about voting, in a non-partisan manner, over the next few days. It's a great effort.
It's hard for me to be non-partisan about voting. Frankly, at some level, if you don't agree with me I don't want you to vote. I've been heard to joke about telling people who don't agree with me that Election Day is the 5th.
Then I found out it wasn't a joke. In Virginia--and perhaps in other parts of the country as well--folks have been getting an official-looking email that tells them that people registered in one party will vote on the 4th, and the others on the 5th.
In Virginia we don't have registration by party, so this couldn't possibly be true--that's how absurd this is. And yet, I can easily imagine a first-time voter or an infrequent voter receiving this message and believing it. It looks pretty official; it seems to speak to a real problem (ie, turnouts may be high and lines may be long). But it's a lie--an effort, like so many others, to keep people away from the polls on election day. Just like voting, voter suppression has a history.
Since the experiment we call democracy got started, there have always been rules about who votes and who doesn't. I teach Victorian literature, and the Victorian period traditionally begins in 1832, which is not the year Victoria became queen (that was 1837), but the year the first Reform Bill passed. This legislation, the first extension of the franchise in England since the seventeenth century, extended the vote to one in five Englishmen. That's right, after the passage of this great reform, still only 20% of men could vote. (And no women, of course.) The bill is thought of as marking the beginning of the political ascendancy of the middle class--a group we've heard a lot about in this election, a group that now, I think, takes its political power somewhat for granted. Over the course of the century the franchise gradually expanded, until by the end of it there was (nearly) universal male suffrage. But it started very small.
I think often my students and I take our voting rights for granted, but most of them would not be voting if this were only forty years ago. The voting age wasn't lowered to 18 until 1971, after all. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictions persisted here in the south until well into the 1960s as well.
My daughter votes in her first national election this year. Her one still-living great-grandmother was born before women had the vote. Remarkably, democracy begets itself. That is, people who have the vote have repeatedly voted to extend that privilege to others. We don't only vote our self-interest; we vote for the common good, which we keep redefining and redefining as our boundaries expand.
There are always those who want to narrow the boundaries. Don't let them. Make your voice heard. Vote on November 4th.