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Britannica Insights: U.S. Elections



Transcript

SPEAKER: So Jeanne, thank you so much for joining me today. To start, can you just introduce yourself and what your job is?

JEANNE ZAINO: Sure. Thank you for having me. My name is Jeanne Zaino. I'm a professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. And I'm also a contributor at Bloomberg News.

SPEAKER: Well, once again, thanks so much for joining us. There's a lot that I want to cover and a lot of questions I have for you. To begin, I want to ask a question that is always talked about during an election. And it's when somebody says, why does my vote matter? And I ask this because so often people say, well, I know my state's going blue, or I know my state's going red. So why should I go out and vote?

JEANNE ZAINO: Yeah, and it's a great question. I live in New York. And I hear this from young people all the time because it's a blue state. There's a few reasons. Number one, if you think about an election like the election in 2000 and the state of Florida, which was decided by 537 votes-- so even at the presidential level, an individual vote can matter.

But if you expand out from that, and you think about all the down ballot races that we're asked to vote on every year, so Senate, House of Representatives, governors, state legislatures, then referendum initiatives, constitutional amendments, all of those things that we're asked to vote on, those all matter an awful lot to our lives.

So our vote can matter for those reasons. And I would also add that elections have consequences. And they have consequences in terms of the policies of our government. And it is highly unlikely that the policies of the government will reflect your interests unless you participate.

So if you think about it from the perspective of an elected official or somebody running for office, you're not going to spend as much time focusing on the needs and interests of somebody who doesn't vote. You're going to focus on the needs and interests of those who do vote.

When you don't vote, if you're silent, it implies that you're consenting to what's going on. And that may or may not be the case. So those are some of the key reasons I think it's important to get out to vote.

SPEAKER: And how have amendments and laws increased voting rights over time?

JEANNE ZAINO: So it's fascinating. Because, of course, when our country was first founded, the franchise was very, very limited. It was primarily limited to white property-owning men of means and education. And that doesn't begin to expand an awful lot until following the Civil War. So in the post-Civil War period, we have three key amendments.

One of those is the amendment which is the 15th Amendment, which allows people to vote regardless of race. Of course, that really was focused on African-American men, not women at that point. That's really the first major expansion of the franchise in American history. And then that's followed in the early 20th century by the passage of something like the 19th Amendment, which we just celebrated 100 years of the 19th Amendment, which opens the vote for women.

So those are some of the key early expansion of the franchise. And then, of course, as you get into the Vietnam era, you finally get the 26th Amendment expanding it to young people age 18 years of age or older. Because, of course, for young men to be going and fighting and dying in as large numbers as they were and not to have the right to vote, it really makes it clear as to why that amendment was passed.

And then you get another significant piece of legislation in the early 1990s and the Motor Voter Bill designed so states were required to allow you to register to vote when you went to get your driver's license or to renew it. So we've had a history. But it's basically a history from the post-Civil War to now of expanding the franchise increasingly from where it was very, very narrow when our country was first founded.

SPEAKER: So that's a lot of information specifically in our history. And obviously, with that expansion means there's new voters. How did the new voters and the expansion affect public policy?

JEANNE ZAINO: Yeah, and that's really such an important aspect of this. Because any time you expand the franchise to bring in new voters, you bring in new voters, and they are choosing new candidates. And in many cases, they are electing new officials-- and this happened with African-Americans post the Voting Rights Act-- who are more reflective of their interests. And you see a lot more focus on issues involving race, for instance.

So the public policies that we see do reflect the interests of those who are voting and those who are being elected increasing numbers by those new voters. But it does take a period of time for that to come to fruition. So it doesn't happen right away. But we do see that sort of movement over time.

You can think similarly about women, for instance. So as the number of women increases reflecting the new voter base, you do see more focus on issues of interest to that population. So these would be things like family leave policies potentially when you're talking about women and other issues that women care about. So we've seen that. But again, it does take some time to wave in those new policies.

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