Until the 1800s, only landowning white men were eligible to vote. Finally, black men were allowed to vote in 1869, and women began voting in 1920. Theoretically, all American citizens over 21 could vote by the mid-1960s. Later, in 1971, the American voting age was lowered to 18, building on the idea that if a person was old enough to serve their country in the military, they should be allowed to vote. Since spring and early summer elections were thought to interfere with the planting season, and late summer and early fall elections overlapped with the harvest, federal law designates the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November as Election Day. And that’s today!
Whatever your criteria for choosing a candidate, it’s a safe bet that they will disappoint us eventually. They are humans, after all, sort of like the rest of us. They’ll say something stupid, cave on an issue when they should have stood firm, or become a stubborn curmudgeon when they should have compromised. However, it does seem essential to suggest that they respect the idea of uninterrupted democracy. Elected officials should maintain a level of selflessness to act on behalf of the country and its citizens rather than themselves. We are the ultimate customer, after all.
Democratic Senator and President-designate John F. Kennedy appeared in Republican-held Barnstable County in Cape Cod shortly after the race was called in November 1960. Barnstable Township had voted the previous day in favor of Richard Nixon over Kennedy by 4,515 to 2,783. Nationwide, Kennedy had won by the slimmest of margins. Thomas Reeves in his book A Question of Character states that “a mere 112,803 votes separated the two candidates – the smallest margin of the century. If only 4500 voters in Illinois and 24,000 voters in Texas had changed their minds, Nixon would have been president. In eleven states, a shift of less than 1 percent of the vote would have switched the state’s electoral votes.” Every vote matters.
Kennedy strode onto the platform with his father and pregnant wife as reporters noted he had tears in his eyes. Historians have pointed out that when elected, most Presidents will break down and wipe tears from their eyes, sensing the weight of this new position.
He spoke briefly, gracefully, and remained composed as the camera held on his face, but his hands below camera level quivered and shook as he tried to hold his papers. In these ten minutes, he uttered a now significant phrase: “The margin is thin, but responsibility is clear.” This echo has endured on every election night in America. However thin or large the margin, when the votes are counted, the person who has that margin cannot escape the position’s responsibility.
At forty-three, President Kennedy began a new generation of Americans who saw the world differently from their fathers. Yet, even these new leaders would have to grapple with enduring American problems, as the leaders we elect today will also. Whether we elect new leaders or tie ourselves to the old guard, today is the day Americans everywhere are allowed to choose their leaders. VOTE!