Friends have recently bombarded me with reasons why they won’t vote in our coming election. They have argued everything from, “La Junta’s going to take over anyway, so voting in Puerto Rico doesn’t matter,” to “I just can’t stand politics!” Unfortunately, there are a growing number of people in Puerto Rico and the US mainland that believe their votes will not count. Yet, in these crucial elections, Puerto Ricans need to take a stand and cast their votes. It is more important than ever; as millennials, we hold the future in our hands.
The most recent example of the importance of the millennial vote must be Britain’s Brexit elections in which most of the young population was against Britain leaving the European Union. However, most of the population who voted in the reform was part of the baby-boom generation. Millennials abstaining from their voting rights resulted in Britain electing to leave the European Union, which will have devastating consequences to young Britons. Even now, Britain’s stocks have plummeted and the British pound is losing value every day. If we allow the older generations, whose voting habits have lead us to our economic and political crisis, to vote for us then we will lose the power to decide our own future, a future older generations may never see.
A History Lesson on Voting
Regardless of the fact that these elections will be crucial for Puerto Rico and the United States’ history, voters should take note that our right to vote did not come easily. In fact, many modern governments pride themselves on the fact that their political structures are modeled after the Roman Empire. However, the so-called equality in voting rights that the Romans have said to be their brainchild was actually not as equal as most think. Romans did not believe in one vote per citizen. Instead, the wealthier a citizen was, the more votes they had. Furthermore, not every citizen could be considered for a chair in the Republic. All of the elected officials were from the aristocratic caste. Moreover, all citizens were granted the right of vote but not everyone was granted the name of citizen. Women, foreigners and slaves were not allowed to vote because they were not considered citizens of the Roman Empire. Since then, democracy has come a long way.
In the United States, a country that is admired for promoting the equality of all citizens, women and African Americans were not allowed to vote until very recently in history. Both the history of African American voting rights and women’s suffrage is intense—women did not get the right to vote until the 1920’s; African Americans were finally given the right to vote in the United States as late as 1965. Let’s discover a little bit about these suffrage movements in order to demonstrate to you why it is so important to vote.
Most of us are aware that the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution gave women the right to vote. It took 100 years of women’s suffrage and suffering to finally achieve this right. It all started when a group of abolitionist activists who were mostly women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to talk about the women’s suffrage movements. Among these activists in Seneca Falls was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who helped found the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in 1890. The NAWSA was actually a merging of two previous women’s suffrage groups, the National Women’s Suffrage Association, formed in 1869, and the American Women Suffrage Association. The reason these first two groups were adversaries was because of the 15th Amendment, which gave African American men the rights of citizenship. The National Women’s Suffrage Association was firmly against this movement because they believed women should also be included in the amendment as citizens of the United States as they were advocating for universal suffrage. They believed that the 15th Amendment would slow down women’s progress in suffrage causes. However, these two groups eventually merged and kept rallying for women’s right to vote, with one of their most important leaders, Susan B. Anthony.
However, many years passed and the National American Women’s Suffrage Association had only managed to get a few states to allow women’s vote. Inspired by the more radical and militant suffrage movements of Britain, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns founded the National Women’s Party. This party’s women picketed in front of the White House, organized marches, were arrested and even started hunger strikes in order to publicize women’s suffrage in the US. In fact, during their first organized parade, angry crowds of men threatened and injured some of the women who were marching. Despite the fact that the police were supposed to protect these women, they did not intervene and allowed the violence to occur. Furthermore, when the NWP started picketing in front of the White House during WWI, police officers began arresting the picketers for “blocking traffic.” As seen on the movie Iron-Jawed Angels, Alice Paul, who was arrested for picketing, was brutalized in prison and force-fed when she started a hunger strike with fellow inmates. They managed to smuggle notes out to the public, one of them saying,
“The same doctor feeds us both [Alice Paul and Rose Winslow], and told me. Don’t let them tell you we take this well. Miss Paul vomits much. I do, too, except when I’m not nervous, as I have been every time against my will… We think of the coming feeding all day. It is horrible.”
Finally, on May 21, 1919, the US House of Representatives passed the Amendment, soon followed by the US Senate on June 4th. On August 26th, the 19th Amendment was finally made into law.
African American Voting History
Right after the Civil War, in 1870, the US signed the 15th Amendment of the Constitution that gave African Americans citizenship and, theoretically, the right to vote. However, many African Americans in the South were denied the right to vote and forced many African Americans to be silent in politics. What tactics did they use to suppress the African American vote? Well, many started giving literacy tests when voters registered, blocking many poorly educated African Americans from voting. Because of this, African American voter registration in 1940 had dropped to 3% in the southern states. This voter suppression continued until 1965 when activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. urged President Lyndon B. Johnson to take action against this violation of African American voting rights.
Finally, in 1965, the US ratified the 15th Amendment, stating that no voter could be discriminated against based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” This meant that voting stations could no longer deny African Americans the right of vote or even perform literacy tests. Furthermore, Johnson also signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited the use of literacy tests, gave areas with low African American votes federal oversight to ensure no discrimination was taking place and authorized the US attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes.
Puerto Rico’s Voting History
Most of us are aware that Puerto Ricans living on the Island still cannot vote for the President of the United States. But, did you know that, until 1947, Puerto Rican’s could not elect our own governor? The history goes a little like this:
In the year 1900, Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker created what is known as the Foraker law, which gave Puerto Rico a civil government for the very first time. Up to this moment in history, Puerto Rico was governed exclusively by a military government appointed by the US. The Foraker law stated that Puerto Rico would have a government divided into three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. However, all civil government officials, including Puerto Rico’s governor, were to be named by the President of the United States. In 1917, the Jones Act replaced the Foraker law. It extended US citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. However, it was not until 1947 that Puerto Ricans were given the right to vote for their own governor. The law that finally conceded Puerto Ricans the right to vote for their own elected officials was the 447 Law. This meant that, in 1948, Puerto Rico elected for the first time its own governor, Luis Muñoz Marín. Furthermore, in 1952, the 600 Law gave Puerto Rico the right to develop its own Constitution and take more control of its own internal government.
All of this history proves that our voting rights have not been handed to Puerto Ricans and even North Americans on a silver platter. In fact, Puerto Ricans still do not have full voting rights when it comes to the US National Elections, where Puerto Ricans living on the Island cannot vote for the President of the United States. This is why Puerto Ricans living on the mainland need to make an informed decision when voting for the US President. The decision millions of Americans make on November 8 will affect all of those American citizens who live in Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands, and who do not have the right to elect the President of the United States.
Still, Why Should We Vote?
If the history of voting rights has not convinced you, let’s talk about the importance of voting on November’s elections in Puerto Rico. As we all know, Puerto Rico was assigned a Fiscal Control Board to oversee finances in Puerto Rico and negotiate the payment of our $70 billion debt. It is almost as if our own history was repeating itself; once again, we did not elect the people who form part of the Fiscal Control Board, which is reminiscent of the time back when the US President chose Puerto Rico’s governor. Furthermore, these board members will have powers over our own government, like having the last word regarding our fiscal plan of the year and our government’s budget. In fact, they can even set aside Puerto Rican laws when convenient to promote their projects. Why then should we vote for our governmental officials if the Fiscal Control Board will be in control of our budget and above our laws?
Puerto Rico’s future governor will still retain most of their elected rights, meaning they can veto projects from the legislature, and they name their own cabinet members and the judges representing our courts. More over, the governor will also respond directly to the Fiscal Control Board and act as our direct representative onto them. The governor has the right to draw up the first plan to repay our debt, as we saw our current governor, Alejandro García Padilla, present a plan to the Board in New York just last week. With a Board whose goal is repaying the Island’s debt, our future governor will be the only person with Puerto Rico’s well being and interests in mind. Electing the right candidate is more important than ever. The millennial vote during these crucial elections might make the difference for Puerto Rico as these elections challenge our economy, our culture, and our jobs.
Just as important as Puerto Rico’s local elections this year, the US Presidential Elections will be pivotal in the Nation’s history. During these elections certain American rights are been susceptible to changes, like LGBT and women’s rights. Some candidates have openly discussed discriminatory proposals that would change the entire history of the United States. But even though these US elections will be crucial in determining the Nation’s future, many millennials are refusing to go to the polls because they are disappointed in the candidates, despite the fact that Americans might elect their first female president. Even though Americans fought hard for their rights to vote, only 57.5% of Americans exercised their right to vote in the US elections of 2012.
More and more celebrities are urging people to vote in the upcoming US elections. Emma Watson wrote on Twitter, “it can’t be denied that the result of the upcoming US presidential election will have ripple effects around the world and impact, in one way or another, the lives of millions and millions of people. […] The next president will be able to make decisions about women, about their bodies, about how they are treated at work, on university campuses and at school, about how men treat women and about their rights as citizens. […] You have real power to decide the future of generations to come,” she concludes on the tweet that has been shared more than 11,394 times.
Please, young Puerto Rican millennials do not refrain from casting your vote! Emma Watson and I are counting on you! What you decide here on the Island and in the Mainland will have repercussions for future generations to come. Go vote on November 8!
If I did not manage to inspire you to vote after this, I don’t know what will! To learn more about how to cast the ballot in Puerto Rico, click here! To learn more about how to vote in the US mainland, click here! Now, go vote on November 8 and go join your friends at the beach later! #PuertoRicoVotes #PuertoRicoIsDoing
Viviana Del Manzano
Puerto Rico Global Blogger & Contributor