Opinion: The Constitution, elections and voting rights

A pile of political signs outside Town Hall in Greenwich on the day after Election Day in 2020.

A pile of political signs outside Town Hall in Greenwich on the day after Election Day in 2020.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Constitution Day, Sept. 17, 2022, is the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution at the end of the federal convention in Philadelphia. Few days in United States history are more important. In 1788, when the first seven articles of the Constitution were ratified by the states, they became “the supreme Law of the Land,” and many provisions remain unchanged.

This year, Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8, in just over seven weeks. Pursuant to the Constitution, the midterm elections will decide 35 seats in the United States Senate, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and many state offices. We live in politically turbulent times, and the results of these election s will determine the direction of American government for at least two years.

The Constitution says little about midterm elections. Article I, Section 2 requires members of the House to be chosen every two years. Art. I, Sec. 3 established a six-year term for senators. The fundamental law’s only other guidance is the Elections Clause in Art. I, Sec. 4, which permits Congress to set Election Day. It is now the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, every two years.

Elections and voting rights have been central to U.S. history. In 1801, following a bitter and controversial campaign, for which the final decision was made by the House of Representatives, President John Adams stepped aside, permitting the peaceful transfer of power to Thomas Jefferson.

The phrase “the ballot is stronger than the bullet” is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Although he never actually said that, Lincoln made similar statements as early as 1856. Ironically Lincoln’s 1860 election to his first term triggered the secession crisis that led to the beginning of the Civil War, the greatest crisis in U.S. history. Throughout the deadly conflict, which produced fierce fighting from Pennsylvania to Louisiana, elections were held in accordance with the Constitution. In 1862, mid-term congressional contests were conducted throughout the Union. Two years later, the Constitution required Lincoln to stand for reelection. Most states permitted soldiers and sailors to cast absentee ballots, and, much to Lincoln’s surprise, a majority of about 150,000 servicemen who voted preferred him, making Lincoln the first president to be reelected since 1832.

In March 1865, Lincoln began his second term, and the war ended a few weeks later, but he was assassinated. There is a fascinating backstory. On April 11, Lincoln gave his “last public address.” While discussing Reconstruction in Louisiana, Lincoln asked whether “the elective franchise” should be given to Black men, and recommended that voting rights be granted to “very intelligent” Black men and Union army veterans. This made Lincoln the first president to publicly adopt this then-radical position.

In the audience was John Wilkes Booth, who had been stalking the president for weeks. After hearing Lincoln endorse Black voting rights, Booth whispered to a companion, “that is the last speech he ever will make.” Three nights later, Booth shot Lincoln. This infamous crime probably advanced the movement for Black suffrage. In December, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified to prohibit slavery, but, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” That was assured by the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. However, it went unenforced for decades, and resistance to Black voting rights continued until passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Women had no constitutionally guaranteed voting rights until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

On Constitution Day, consider reading President Lincoln’s short speech to the 166th Ohio Regiment in August 1864, about 10 weeks before the presidential election. Lincoln told the soldiers, “Nowhere in the world is presented a government of so much liberty and equality.” That was an idealistic, perhaps naive view, but it conveyed Lincoln’s enduring confidence in the constitutional system.

The Constitution does not require citizens to vote, but a democratic republic is unsustainable if citizens fail to perform this important civic duty. Please plan to vote on Nov. 8. The future of American democracy depends on it.

Steven S. Berizzi is a professor of history and political science at Norwalk Community College.