Voting Rights: A Cornerstone of Our Democracy
Voting is central to our democracy. The ability to have a voice in choosing who represents us, who makes decisions that impact our lives, our families, and communities, is a cornerstone of our democracy. Voting is key to the realization of the promise of the Constitution of the United States.
At our nation’s founding, voting was only for white men who owned property. It took nearly two centuries for our country to meaningfully extend the right to vote to African Americans, Native Americans, women, and people of color. Today, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and many civil rights, won through decades of struggle led by the African American community, are being actively undermined. And since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, we are facing an unrelenting, organized attack on our right to vote.
Historically, Japanese Americans have not escaped voter suppression. Unable to become citizens for decades, the Issei couldn’t vote, own land, or engage in many professions. Furthermore, one of the results of the mass incarceration of the Japanese American community during World War II was voter suppression in the camps. While technically being able to exercise their right to vote, Japanese Americans were effectively disenfranchised while behind barbed wire. Furthermore, many families lost their citizenship and their right to vote for many years after World War II.
This article touches on how important the right to vote is to our civil rights and to our democracy.
A headline from the 1944 Rohwer Outpost decries “Wyoming Election Bars Evacuee Voting Rights.” Although forced without a trial to live in Wyoming, Heart Mountain prisoners were denied the right to vote in Wyoming elections, ostensibly because they were residing “on military outposts and stations, which are federal, not state property.” It is a bitter convoluted irony that, having been forced by the government to live in Wyoming, they were not allowed to vote in the Wyoming elections in their new government-mandated residence.
Voting is a fundamental right in a true democracy, and any attempts to disenfranchise citizens of this sacred right is an affront to the concept of democracy itself. Those seeking to vote during the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II faced challenges and obstacles. Early on, many in opposition spoke out to crush the right to vote of those incarcerated. Groups like The Native Sons of the Golden West and others sought to disenfranchise Japanese Americans, but the lawsuit was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court in Regan v. King.
On August 26, 1942, a letter submitted to The Manzanar Free Press addresses this issue. The letter states that most people interviewed by a major newspaper of the time said, “the Japanese should not be given the privilege of voting since the Japanese are wards of the federal government.” The letter continues its warning in an almost hauntingly prophetic tone as it speaks up for those who show opposition to the distorted notion that within a true democracy any group, singled out by its ancestry, should be deprived the right to vote:
We, Americans of Japanese ancestry in evacuation centers, are proud of fellow Americans who have the courage of their convictions to say what they think is right in face of mounting public opposition. A nation insisting on a democratic program to bring justice to all peoples cannot itself practice undemocratic principles—such as denying evacuee citizens the right to vote (T.U.).
These words, although firmly rooted in history, contain timeless principles that apply every bit as much today as they did at the moment they were written. Any attempt to intimidate, manipulate, or obstruct the people’s voice and right to vote runs counter to a true and free democracy.
Even though Japanese Americans voted by absentee ballots during the imprisonment, many faced obstacles. Absentee voting had to be done through their home state, and provisions varied for this from state to state. In 1942, The Santa Anita Pacemaker reports that in Los Angeles County, Japanese Americans imprisoned initially at Santa Anita had to submit requests by mail within a narrow fifteen-day window, not an easy task while living in bedlam far from home. Where would they be living in the upcoming months at election time? Would applications for absentee ballots even be received and answered within the narrow timeframe? Would responses be forwarded? When Japanese Americans later arrived at Manzanar, they surely wondered how they would get voter information, especially regarding the local issues at home. Was this all a backdoor attempt to discourage voting? Natasha Varner, in “Japanese Americans Incarcerated During World War II Could Still Vote, Kind Of,” details voter numbers and discrepancies in the voter count (see Works Cited below).
After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment mandated equal protection under the law for all male citizens and called for the right to vote regardless of ethnicity. Yet some attempted to block it. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Asian immigrants from becoming citizens at all, obstructed the initial force of the Fourteenth Amendment. It took yet another amendment to mandate for women a fair and equal voice, and the right to vote. Again, some tried to still the people’s voice. During the Civil Rights Movement, concerned and passionate people marched to put an end to attempts to obstruct that same democratic voice with such devices as poll taxes and literacy tests. John Lewis marched—and was beaten—in Selma, Alabama for the same cause.
There is a justifiable concern over the polarization of thought in the country today, but the right to vote is a safety check for such polarization. When implemented in a truly democratic fashion, voting gives all a fair say and the right to a voice. The concept of democracy can be fragile. All, regardless of ethnicity, economic standing, gender, or any other social distinction deserve a fair voice in our elections, both then and now. Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II knew well this struggle. Their calls for justice as expressed in their own publications and in their own words support the right to vote and the noble cause of a true democracy.
- Robinson, Greg. “Regan v. King.” Densho Encyclopedia, 29 Jul 2015. <https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Regan%20v.%20King>.
- Shimano, Eddie, ed. “Nisei Citizens Vote by Absentee Ballot.” Santa Anita Pacemaker, July 15, 1942. Densho Encyclopedia. <http://encyclopedia.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-146/ddr-densho-146-26-mezzanine-aafee7a861.pdf>
- T.U. [initials]. “Passing Judgement.” Manzanar Free Press, 26 August 1942. https://www.loc.gov/resource/sn84025948/1942-08-26/ed-1/?sp=2.
- Unknown Author. “Wyoming Election Bars Evacuee Voting Rights.” Rohwer Outpost, November 4, 1944. Densho Digital Repository. <http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-143-216-master-cdc6e6811e/>
- Varner, Natasha. “Japanese Americans Incarcerated During World War II Could Still Vote, Kind Of.” <https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-10-18/japanese-americans-incarcerated-during-world-war-ii-were-still-allowed-vote-kind>.