America’s History of Voter Suppression


Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard and the author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, has an article in the New York Times about America’s long history of voter suppression laws, which are being repeated now that Republicans have control of so many state legislatures.

While the franchise expanded during some moments and in some places, it contracted in others, depriving Americans of a right they had once held. Between 1790 and 1850 — the period when property requirements were being dropped — four Northern states disenfranchised African-American voters, and New Jersey halted a 17-year experiment permitting women to vote. During this same period, nine states passed laws excluding “paupers” from political rights.

After Reconstruction, both major political parties attempted to constrict the electorate, albeit in different locales. In the South — as is well known — Democratic state legislatures employed a variety of devices, including literacy tests, poll taxes, “understanding” clauses and, eventually, Democratic primaries restricted to whites. As a result, African-Americans were largely excluded from electoral participation from the 1890s until the 1960s.

In the North, similar, if less draconian, legal changes, generally sponsored by Republicans, targeted (among others) the millions of immigrant workers pouring into the country. In 1921, for example, New York State adopted an English-language literacy requirement for voters that remained in force (and was enforced) for decades. Almost invariably, these new limits on the franchise were fueled by partisan interests and ethnic or racial tensions; they were embraced by respectable Americans, like the eminent historian Francis Parkman, who had come to view universal suffrage as a “questionable blessing.”

Many of the late 19th- and early 20th-century laws operated not by excluding specific classes of citizens but by erecting procedural obstacles that were justified as measures to prevent fraud or corruption. It was to “preserve the purity of the ballot box” that legislatures passed laws requiring voters to bring their sealed naturalization papers to the polls or to present written evidence that they had canceled their registration at any previous address or to register annually, in person, on one of only two Tuesdays.

The new procedures were widely recognized, by both their advocates and their targets, as having a far greater impact on some groups of voters — immigrants, blue-collar workers, the poor — than on others, and they often succeeded. In Pittsburgh in 1906, a personal registration law, sponsored by Republicans to check the influence of a crusading reformer, cut the number of registered voters in half.

In the 1930s, “pauper exclusion” laws were invoked to disenfranchise jobless men and women who were receiving relief. In 2000, Massachusetts disenfranchised prisoners after they formed an organization to promote inmate rights.

The targets of exclusionary laws have tended to be similar for more than two centuries: the poor, immigrants, African-Americans, people perceived to be something other than “mainstream” Americans. No state has ever attempted to disenfranchise upper-middle-class or wealthy white male citizens.

In Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she argues that the war on drugs has been deliberately built up in order to reinstate the Jim Crow laws with a different excuse. Another aspect of that is clearly all of these new barriers to voting. One of most powerful ways that black people are increasingly disenfranchised in this country is through laws stripping felons of their voting rights, even after their sentence is complete (the laws vary by state).

We arrest and convict hundreds of thousands of people of nothing more than drug possession every year, the vast majority of them poor minorities. We give them underpaid and underresourced public defenders who handle far more cases than anyone could, forcing most of them to plead guilty even if they’re innocent. Doing so then robs them not only of their freedom but of the ability to get grants and scholarships for school and their right to vote as well. It would be hard to design a system more effective at maintaining a permanent underclass than this.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    …and New Jersey halted a 17-year experiment permitting women to vote.

    That one popped out at me.

    I wonder what the adverse effects were that necessitated ending the “experiment”?

  2. alanb says

    Chiroptera,

    From Wikipedia:

    New Jersey women, along with “aliens…persons of color, or negroes,” lost the vote in 1807, when the franchise was restricted to white males, ostensibly, to combat electoral fraud by simplifying the conditions for eligibility.

    Sounds familiar.

  3. Michael Heath says

    Alexander Keyssar:

    In the South — as is well known — Democratic state legislatures employed a variety of devices, including literacy tests, poll taxes, “understanding” clauses and, eventually, Democratic primaries restricted to whites. As a result, African-Americans were largely excluded from electoral participation from the 1890s until the 1960s.

    In the North, similar, if less draconian, legal changes, generally sponsored by Republicans, targeted (among others) the millions of immigrant workers pouring into the country.

    It appears that the common thread is the political ideology of conservatism. Not sure that’s true, but we should at least suspect such.

  4. says

    I’ve always been shocked with the us voting laws in the us. In Denmark you are automatically registered to vote from your 18th birthday.

    Only mentally incapacitated people can loose their vote. Convicts can still vote, they vote from prison.

    Our system is basically, one person one vote, and I would think the US would follow the same principle

  5. Aquaria says

    #5:

    It would never work here. Our government is literally built on giving some rights to certain classes, and not others, to keep the masses in line. Wealthy whites figured out over 400 years ago that divide and conquer of the poor and exploitable was the best strategy for maintaining their power.

    You’d think more people would read Howard Zinn. He covered this development in the second chapter of his most famous work, A People’s History of the United States.

  6. says

    soren,

    it’s an Anglo-Saxon tradition not to register your citizens. There are no national ID cards in the UK or the US, and no obligation to register yourself with the municipality you reside in. In many European countries you can get fined for failing to do so after moving.

  7. John Phillips, FCD says

    pelanum, but to register in the UK you just ask for the form, fill it in and send it back. In fact, annually, every address in an electoral register’s area will receive a registration form to fill in. If nothing has changed it can be done online or via a telephone keyed code. You can even choose to go onthe restricted electoral roll that is much the same as being ex-directory, though there are groups with legal rights to supervised access of the full roll.

    I’ve been at this address for ten years and just popped my ‘can’t remember how many’ such update in the post this very morning. Costs absolutely nothing, not even a return stamp and the only reason I couldn’t do this online this time is that every four or five years you have to reconfirm your signature for postal voting. The only limits are that you must be either a British, Irish (Republic), Commonwealth or EU citizen. Oh and giving false information can cost you a fine of up to £1000.

  8. says

    John,

    the difference to continental Europe is:

    you don’t have to ask for the form. Because it’s your obligation to get register at your current address, and in some countries, like Germany and the Netherland, to possess a national ID card (but not to carry it around), the state always knows your current address and sends the election forms AUTOMATICALLY.

    (Granted, as means of comparison, I’m more familiar with the US than with the UK. But it’s my understanding that the National ID card was scrapped again, and you don’t need to register unless you want to vote)

  9. boadinum says

    In Canada, one needs only to be a naturalized citizen of 18 years or older in order to vote. Proof of age and residency are the only requirements, and they do not need to be resubmitted before every election (proof of one’s identity at the voting booth is required, of course.)

    The American concept of not only having to register before every election, but to declare one’s voting preference (Dem, Rep, Ind) seems to me like a bizarre thing to have to do in a democracy.

  10. Michael Heath says

    boadium writes:

    The American concept of not only having to register before every election, but to declare one’s voting preference (Dem, Rep, Ind) seems to me like a bizarre thing to have to do in a democracy.

    We do not have to register prior to every election.

    For general, government-run elections we do not have to declare a party affiliation. Some states will register a party affiliation when registering you to vote, but many don’t. In cases where you can register your party affiliation with your voter record, you can declare yourself an independent so even those states identifying a party affiliation does not require one do so.

    Primaries conducted by political parties to determine who they’ll nominate to run in a general election have varying rules regarding voters who’d like to vote in their party’s primary. These rules not only vary by party, but also vary by state for a given party. For example, in Michigan one doesn’t identify any party affiliation when registering to vote nor does one have to declare a party affiliation to vote in a Democratic or Republican primary. There are probably some states whose respective party primary administrators use the voter rolls to make sure only those who registered with the party, or perhaps independents as well, are allowed to vote in their primary.

    For example here in Michigan, in 2004 I voted in the Democratic primary for Wes Clark, in spite of being a member of the Republican party at that time. I voted for him because I thought he had the best chance of beating George W. Bush, with only Howard Dean being a viable alternative (I was surprised at how close John Kerry came, who I voted for in spite of finding him to be an incredibly mediocre candidate – which shows my antipathy towards W.). No one challenged my vote in spite of my looking like a typical ditto-head Limbaugh voter* (I abhor Limbaugh).

    In 2008 I voted in the GOP primary for John McCain, primarily because I wanted Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to be president and thought they’d have a far tougher time beating Mitt Romney than dunderhead John McCain. Again no one challenged me, in spite of the fact the Democrats primary imploded and so a lot of liberals were voting in the GOP primary to promote the weakest possible GOP candidate with a chance of winning the GOP nomination.

    * I’ve never served on a jury because defense attorneys always use their pick to disqualify me. Their loss because I’d be a perfect candidate for them. Not one prosecuting attorney ever disqualified me.

  11. John Phillips, FCD says

    But the UK ID scheme was basically dead in the water almost from the off, as good old Tone and Jack Straw, IIRC, could only get a workable level of support for the bill if it was non-compulsory. Which basically made it pointless, especially as the original motivation was part of a badly thought out illogical anti-terrorism strategy. After all, not being able to get an ID was obviously going to stop any terrorists coming to the UK, not.

    It was simply our home grown version of security theatre with a good old dollop of pandering to fear after 9/11 and 7/7 thrown in for good measure. And to add insult to injury, anyone who decided they wanted an ID card would have to pay around £35 (~$56) to get one and it was going to cost over £10 billion to set up the scheme.

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