The Long Struggle for Voting Rights

August 20, 2012

Since the founding of the United States, working people have had to fight to win, and to keep, the right to vote. And through American history, rich and powerful people, often calling themselves "conservatives", have tried to maintain their privileges by depriving other Americans of the right to vote.

The story of the long struggle for voting rights in America is thoroughly and brilliantly told in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, by Alexander Keyssar, who teaches history and social policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. This highly-readable account was first published in 2000, and the 2009 revised edition brings the story up to nearly the present, when voter suppression has again become a national issue.

Before and immediately after the American Revolution, the right to vote in most of the 13 original states was limited mainly to white men, and in most states, only those who owned a certain amount of property. Free blacks who owned property had voting rights in some Northern states and, for a while, North Carolina. The most common property qualification was a freehold of 50 acres. (Among others, this disqualified tenant farmers who leased land.) In some states the requirement was property of a certain monetary value, such as 50 pounds, or a taxpaying requirement. When Vermont gained statehood in 1791, it was immediately the most democratic state, with no property or tax requirements for voting.

The U.S. Constitution adopted in 1789 said very little about the right to vote - determining who could vote remained a state prerogative. But the trend through the first half of the 19th century was to remove restrictions on white male suffrage. This was in part motivated by the drop in the number of people who met property qualifications, as fewer men owned large farms. War veterans - men who did not own property but had fought for the country in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 - mobilized to demand the right to vote. For southern elites, the motive for enfranchising poor white men was racial: they needed them to serve in the militia and catch runaway slaves. The new western states and territories adopted liberal voting rules to attract settlers, and some of them - starting with Wisconsin in 1848 - even allowed non-citizen immigrants to vote, if they'd declared their intention to become citizens. But conservatives continued to resist expansion of the electorate, and warned that with the growth of industry, the country would soon be overrun by a dangerous class of people who should never be allowed to vote: urban factory workers.

The first big push to shrink voting rights came from the "Know-Nothings" of the 1850s - an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movement especially hostile to the working-class Irish. Running as the American Party, Know-Nothings won state and local elections on a platform of restricting immigrant voters, through literacy tests, long residency requirements, and long waits for new citizens to gain voting rights. The Know-Nothings proposed that naturalized citizens be kept from voting for as long as 21 years; in Massachusetts they passed a compromise two-year waiting period.


When the Civil War began, only five states, all in New England, permitted African-American property owners to vote. But a war in which hundreds of thousands died, in the words of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", "to make men free" created support for more democracy. The traditional sentiment in favor of letting veterans vote now applied to 180,000 black men who fought to save the Union. General William Tecumseh Sherman forcefully made the case for black suffrage: "When the fight is over, the hand that drops the musket cannot be denied the ballot." Still, racism persisted even in the North; between 1863 and 1870, proposals to allow blacks to vote were defeated in 15 northern states and territories.

Violent southern resistance to federally-directed Reconstruction led to dramatic political and constitutional changes. The 14th Amendment declared "all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof" to be citizens - including African Americans. It also prohibited states to deny citizens "equal protection of the laws", but did not explicitly address voting.

In the face of racist terrorism in the South, more Republicans became convinced that black enfranchisement was needed. Following the 1868 election, Congress began drafting the 15th Amendment. The final version prohibited the denial of the right to vote "on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude." But Congress considered, and came close to passing, a version that would have protected African Americans, immigrant citizens, the poor and other groups by outlawing voting restrictions on the basis of "race, color, nativity, property, education or creed."

During Reconstruction, and even after Northern troops withdrew from the South in 1877, black men in the South enjoyed the right to vote, and some were elected to Congress, state legislatures and local office. Political alliances between blacks and poor whites threatened the power of the local elites. Their response was a renewed campaign of racial division and terror, through which they imposed the "Jim Crow" system - strict racial segregation and the end of black civil and political rights, enforced by Ku Klux Klan terrorism and one-party rule by ultra-racist Democrats.


If the stronger version of the 15th Amendment had been adopted, it would have ruled out one of tricks used to steal black voting rights: literacy tests. Other voter-suppression tactics were poll taxes, difficult registration requirements, all-white Democratic primaries, and violence. Poll taxes and literary tests could also disenfranchise many poor whites, and in some parts of the South they were used for that purpose as well, while in other places they were selectively applied to exclude only blacks. From the 1880s until the 1960s, the federal government and courts showed little interest in enforcing the 15th Amendment, so the voting rights of southern blacks (and many northern blacks) were nullified.

The post-Reconstruction restoration of white supremacy in the South was known as "Redemption." Keyssar titles one of his chapters, "The Redemption of the North." While not nearly as brutal as what happened in the South, the late 19th and early 20th centuries was also a time of reduced democracy in the North. The nightmare of antebellum northern conservatives - a massive, largely foreign-born and often militant industrial working class - had become reality. So a variety of measures were enacted in the North and West to keep people - especially workers - from voting. These included literacy tests, difficult voter registration requirements, long waiting periods for new citizens and transient workers, and closing the polls earlier. California changed its constitution to say no one born in China could vote.

Many state constitutions barred "paupers" from voting, and this was used to prohibit striking workers, or the unemployed during the depressions of the 1870s and 1890s, from voting.

Other states decided that, despite the 14th Amendment, Native Americans were not citizens because reservations were outside the state's jurisdiction. By the early 20th century most states with significant Native American populations allowed voting rights, but only to those who severed their tribal connections. Voting rights were offered, essentially as a bribe, to induce Indians to privatize collective tribal lands so they could be sold to non-Indians. Even after Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, many states still found ways to disenfranchise native people.

Keyssar summarizes the impact of these attacks on democracy in the North and West:

"...depending on the state or city in which he lived, a man could be kept from the polls because he was an alien, a pauper, a lumberman, an anarchist, did not pay taxes on his property, could not read or write, had recently moved from one neighborhood to another, did not posses his naturalization papers, was unable to register on the third or fourth Tuesday before an election, could not prove that he had cancelled a prior registration, been convicted of a felony, or been born in China or on an Indian reservation."


The struggle for women's suffrage began with a women's convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, and the early movement grew in alliance with abolitionism. But the prioritization of black emancipation, and the silence of 14th and 15th Amendments on women's rights, led to a split between these movements. During the postwar anti-democratic retrenchment, some women's suffrage activists - even key leaders such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt - pandered to bigotry with the argument that the votes of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant women would counter the votes of "ignorant" foreign, black and working-class men.

But after the turn of the century, a new generation of leaders began to address issues of women workers and reach out to unions. With backing from labor and better tactics, the women's suffrage movement won the right to vote in several states, and growing momentum led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment - women's suffrage - in 1920.


The mass movements of the 1960s - civil rights and the student movement - led to major breakthroughs for democracy. The courage of civil rights activists in the South built national sentiment for change, and the brutal police assault on a peaceful voting rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 prompted President Lyndon Johnson's push for passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This critically-important law dramatically expanded American democracy and, nearly 100 years after the fact, implemented the 15th Amendment. Some parts of the bill were written as temporary emergency measures, but the law was renewed and strengthened in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006.

Among other things, the Voting Rights Act struck down literacy tests, which were always in English and were used in southwestern states to keep Latino citizens from voting. Even New York had a literacy test that prevented many Puerto Ricans from voting. The 1975 amendments to the VRA made the ban on literacy tests permanent and added "language minorities" to the protected groups.

The 24th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1964, permanently banned poll taxes. Another fruit of the '60s social movements was the 26th Amendment (1971), which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

The most important gain in voting rights in the past 30 years was the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (also called the Motor Voter Law), which requires states make voter registration easier by allowing it by mail and in a variety of government offices - including motor vehicle bureaus. Congress passed the bill in 1992 over fierce Republican resistance, but it was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush. After the 1992 election, President Bill Clinton signed it into law.


Despite these gains, we were reminded in 2000 election of major weaknesses in American voting rights. Al Gore won the popular vote for the presidency by 200,000 votes, but George W. Bush won the White House in the Supreme Court.

Florida is one of a few states in which people convicted of a felony are banned for life from voting. Shortly before the 2000 election, Florida conducted a massively-mismanaged purge of voter lists; many people who had never been convicted of a crime were disenfranchised for having a name similar to that of an ex-convict.

Many of us recall the other massive irregularities with the 2000 election in Florida, and the decision of the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, to stop the Florida recount and hand the presidency to Bush. What you may not remember is that in its decision in Bush v. Gore, the court's narrow Republican majority declared that "the individual citizen has no constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States..." State legislatures can allow voters to choose the states' electors who vote for president in the Electoral College, said the five justices, but the legislature can also "take back the power to appoint electors." (The Republican majority in Florida's legislature was preparing to do just that, until the U.S. Supreme Court did it for them.)

That shocking ruling from the nation's highest court - and the recent efforts by Republican state politicians to chip away at voting rights - point to some fundamental weaknesses in our democracy. We are long overdue to get rid of the anachronism known as the Electoral College, and allow American voters to directly choose their president by majority popular vote. Our Constitution also needs one more amendment, like the one proposed in 2001 by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) but never acted upon by Congress - a constitutional amendment declaring all citizens of the United States age 18 or older have the right to vote to choose their representatives.

Read about current attacks on voting rights here.



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