Our Old History of Fights Over Voting

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy

In the United States, voting rights don’t march forward as much as they ebb and flow. Often, it happens like this: The prospect of short-term political gain leads one of the two parties to make a massive push for democratic participation, which is then countered by the other side, which has an equally large interest in maintaining a smaller electorate of particular people.

In the late 18th century, for instance, New Jersey was one of the few states to grant voting rights to (property-owning) women. The exact reasons for taking this path are unclear, but partisan politics had something to do with it—“As different political groups struggled to gain ascendancy during and just after the revolution, they tried to enlarge their potential constituencies, one of which was female,” writes historian Alexander Keyssar in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.

But, he notes, what partisan politics gives, it can take away, and as the balance of power shifted in the early 19th century—“and charges of voter fraud were rampant”—the Federalists and other political groups worked to disenfranchise women voters, eventually declaring that “no person shall vote in any state or county election for officers in the government of the United States or of this state, unless such a person be a free, white male citizen.”

This, to a certain extent, is also the story of Reconstruction, where Republican support for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments was one part principle and one part politics. The freed slaves were staunch Republicans, and their support gave the party a Southern foothold that would last for nearly 20 years after the end of the Civil War, until white “Redeemers” destroyed African American political strength with terrorism, violence, and repression.

Obviously, in the current era, there’s no push for the legal disenfranchisement of law-abiding citizens. But, the expansion of voter participation that flowed from the Democratic Party’s nationwide sweep in 2006—and defined the 2008 election——has sparked a predictable backlash. North Carolina—which has moved forward with strict voter identification laws in the week since the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act—stands as an excellent example of the full dynamic.

After North Carolina Democrats won unified control of state government in 2006—thanks to wide dissatisfaction with the Republican Party and high turnout from black voters—they moved to expand voting with same-day registration. Greater participation, they argued, was a good in itself. And while I agree, it’s also true that easier voting benefits traditionally Democratic constituencies, like college students and African Americans, who face material barriers to casting a ballot. And indeed, in the 2008 election, more than 250,000 people used same-day registration to vote. And as the Charlotte Observer shows, the large bulk of early voters were Democrats (contributing to Barack Obama’s surprise win in the state).

North Carolina Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010, and in the same vein, promptly moved to restrict voting where it was previously open. In 2011, then-Governor Bev Purdue vetoed a bill that would have required identification for all voters, end same-day registration, restrict early voting, and end voting on the Sunday before an election.

Now, however, Republicans have the governorship as well as a veto-proof majority. And with the Supreme Court’s decision last week—which gutted the Voting Rights Act and ended the pre-clearance requirement for North Carolina, among other states—the GOP has a chance to turn this proposal into law. They aren’t wasting any time. Here’s The Los Angeles Times with more:

The new moves by state officials to adopt ID requirements and other changes in the voting laws can have a critical impact on black voting strength, civil rights leaders say. Blacks represented 22% of North Carolina’s registered voters in 2012 but accounted for 34% of voters without a driver’s license or state-issued ID this year, according to Democracy North Carolina, a liberal advocacy group. The group says blacks in 2012 made up 29% of early voters and 34% of same-day registration voters.

If Democrats manage to take back power in North Carolina, you can expect them to reverse these changes, if they become law. As I said, it’s part of a pattern. That doesn’t excuse GOP actions, but it gives us a way of understanding them; that is, they reflect our longstanding divide on the question of who votes, and whether political participation is something you have to earn.

Many of the Founders—especially the slave-owning delegates of the South—were preoccupied with what they called “republican virtue.” As they saw it, a republic couldn’t function without a virtuous citizenry participating in public life, with virtue defined by economic independence. This formed the basis for arguments against expanding the franchise, as you can see decades later, as lawmakers in states across the country debated universal male suffrage. “In this country,” said one Massachusetts conservative, where the means of subsistence were so abundant and the demand for labor great,“ any man who couldn’t obtain property was either “indolent or vicious.”

The fights over voter-identification laws, the attempts to limit access to the polls, the Republican claims that ID shouldn’t be hard to find for legitimate voters—they all echo 200 years of partisan politics. And every new expansion of rights—from universal male suffrage, to black suffrage, to women’s suffrage—comes with new debates over the extent of those rights.

For those of us who support more participating—and thus more voting—regardless of circumstances, this offers a little comfort. When major gains are made, they almost always stay on the books. But it’s not enough to have formal rights—they must be actualized.

With the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act—as well as the actions in states like North Carolina—that’s where the fight is now. Are we still a country that’s serious about opening the polls to all of its citizens, or do we believe that voting is for some, and not for others?

You may also like