The Outlawed Vote


Alameda is coming off an election with record-breaking voter turnout. However one may have voted, Alamedans are collectively an example of a community vibrant in its practice of the voting franchise. Alamedans can not only congratulate themselves but also find assurance in this show of civic engagement. It’s an engagement that must be sustained for the road ahead. In the lead up to 2020, let’s be mindful of the troubled history of “the vote.”

Anarchists are fond of disdainfully saying, “if voting changed anything, it would be outlawed.” If that were the case, then voting must be able to change a lot of things, because the “powers that be” have outlawed voting throughout the history of both America and the world.

Mass democracy, in which all citizens can vote, is a very recent development. Most of human history is the history of kings, emperors, czars and pharaohs with ordinary people’s stories left untold.

We are told the first emperor of China built the Great Wall. I doubt he did any physical labor laying the stone. We are told the Pharaoh Cheops built the Great Pyramid. I doubt he ever helped pull or lay any stone blocks. Trump wants to build a wall. I doubt he’ll be placing any steel slats or pouring concrete.

No. Ordinary people who actually built the “great monuments” to oligarchs are lost in the abyss of time, because they had no say in what went on in their societies. They had no vote.

Ancient Greek democracy was not actually a democracy as we think of it. Women, perhaps comprising half the population, had no legal say in political decisions. Athenian slaves, who comprised a majority of the Athenian population, could not vote. Free adult males, a minority of the population, had the only say in Athenian democracy.

It was much the same in the Roman Republic with the oligarchs keeping a tight grip on power.Oligarchs crucified the legendary Spartacus, who led a rebellion of enslaved gladiators. The “noble Brutus” who led the senatorial conspiracy to murder Caesar in the name of the Republic, was a nobleman senator hoping to retain political power in Rome.

Even in Colonial America the big boys dominated and women  had no voice and no vote in Colonial legislatures. Nor did slaves and, in the beginning, there were slaves in every colony. American democracy was hardly a democracy we would recognize today. Only free, white, male property owners had the right to vote.

The democracy we experience today took centuries of struggle to construct. It took the American Revolution, a long and violent war against England “in the name of liberty,” to change things — for some. It took the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history, to abolish slavery and give black men (but not black women) the right to vote — in theory. In practice, excessive poll taxes, intricate literacy tests and the night-riding Ku Klux Klan kept them from voting.

It took the longest reform crusade in our history, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to 1920 for women to win the right to vote, to have a say in their own destinies.
Only in the 1924 did Native Americans win the right of citizenship in the land they had inhabited for thousands of years.

And it took another great crusade, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early ’60s for African Americans to make real the right to vote they had been promised a century earlier.

None of these were quixotic crusades, nor were they fools’ errands. The struggles for the vote were real struggles for real power. This is because in a democracy there is only one way to have a voice in how society is governed — voting. Oligarchs would like to dictate how society is governed in a loud voice. They would like the mass of ordinary people to remain mute. This is why oligarchs have resisted for so long and so viciously the citizens’ right to vote.

The struggle goes on today because power never sleeps.

  • Power continues to gerrymander voting districts in order to curtail the voice of minorities.
  • Power continues to pass laws making it difficult for Native Americans on reservations to vote.
  • Power continues to pass laws curtailing the use of absentee and provisional ballots.
  • Power continues to pass laws cutting the number of polling places in minority districts and moving the remaining ones to inaccessible locations.
  • Power continues to pass laws purging voting rolls and mandating proofs of citizenship.
  • Power continues to do whatever it can to outlaw voting for as many people as possible in whatever way possible.

Because voting changes things.



Gaby Dolphin is the co-president of Alameda Democratic Club.