A History of American Disenfranchisement

The NYTimes has a great article on this here.

The House of Representatives struck a major blow against democracy last month. It passed a bill that would deny the vote to anyone who shows up at the polls without a government-issued photo ID. The bill’s requirements are so onerous and inflexible that they could prevent millions of eligible voters without driver’s licenses — who are disproportionately poor, minority or elderly — from casting a ballot.

With that vote Congress joined a growing number of states that are erecting new barriers to voting. Republican-dominated legislatures and election officials have adopted absurdly difficult registration rules. They have removed eligible voters from the rolls with Katherine Harris-style purges, and required voters to buy ID cards to vote, a modern form of poll tax.

These new voting laws are disturbing, but they should not be surprising. The story of American voting is usually told as one of steady expansion: constitutional amendments extending the franchise to freed slaves, women and 18-year-olds, and Supreme Court rulings and federal laws eliminating voting obstacles for Southern blacks. But racial and religious minorities, women and the poor have historically had to fight not just to get the right to vote, but to stop it from being taken away.

America has a hidden history of disenfranchisement. It has operated, as a Harvard professor, Alexander Keyssar, recounts in his valuable history, “The Right to Vote,” on the expected lines of class, race, ethnicity and religion, and often for partisan gain. Right now, we are in another period of what Professor Keyssar calls “backsliding.” Minorities and the poor — and everyone who cares about American democracy — have to stand up for a principle that should by now be beyond debate: universal suffrage.

Long before the Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote in 1920, some women had already had the franchise and had it taken away. New Jersey, which gave women the vote in its state Constitution in 1776, disenfranchised them in 1807. Pennsylvania, which let blacks vote after the Revolution, took away their right to vote in the 1830’s.

Immigrants were another common target of disenfranchisement laws. In 1840, New York — which, like most states, did not require pre-Election Day registration — adopted a registration law that applied only to New York City, aimed at the growing Irish Catholic population. The lower classes were another target. In the 1800’s, New Jersey adopted “sunset laws” that required the polls to close before factories let out for the day. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, many states took the vote away from “paupers.”

Disenfranchisement was often motivated by partisan politics. In the South, at the end of Reconstruction, white Democrats pushed through poll taxes and literacy tests to reduce the black Republican vote. In the North, it was Republicans putting up the barriers, like New York’s 1921 constitutional amendment imposing a rigorous literacy test, aimed at keeping hundreds of thousands of Yiddish speakers from voting.

Poll taxes and literacy tests are unconstitutional today, but the forces of disenfranchisement have come up with creative new methods. In 2004, the Ohio secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, ordered election officials to reject any voter registration form that was submitted on less than 80-pound paper. The edict disproportionately hurt poor and minority voters by interfering with registration drives aimed at them.

This year, Florida adopted new rules for voter registration drives that were so onerous — and carried such draconian punishments for mistakes — that the League of Women Voters of Florida announced that for the first time in 67 years it would not register voters.

Election officials are still wrongly purging eligible voters from the rolls. Four years after Ms. Harris’s error-filled purge of felons, her successor as Florida secretary of state developed another error-filled felon list. She abandoned it only after news media pointed out that, oddly enough, it included 22,000 blacks, a group that votes heavily Democratic, but just 61 Hispanics, a group that tends to vote Republican in Florida. Just last week, a court struck down another error-filled voter roll purge, in Kentucky.

The voter ID laws that have been enacted recently have been set up not to verify voters’ identities, but to stop certain groups from voting. Georgia’s law — whose sponsor was quoted in a Justice Department memo as saying that if blacks in her district “are not paid to vote, they don’t go to the polls” — required people to pay for voter ID cards, until the courts held that to be an illegal poll tax. When it took effect there was not a single office in Atlanta where the cards were for sale.

The current wave of laws began after 2000, when the presidency was decided by just 537 votes. With today’s closely divided electorate, there is more strategic value than ever in disenfranchising people who fall into groups likely to support the other party. To a disheartening degree, this new wave is supported almost entirely by Republicans and opposed only by Democrats.

The opposition should be bipartisan. Disenfranchisement undermines not only American democracy, but also the whole idea of America, by illegitimately excluding some people from their rightful place in it.

Abraham Lincoln understood this. In 1859, after Massachusetts Republicans pushed through a requirement that immigrants wait two years after becoming citizens to vote, a group of German-Americans asked Lincoln what he thought of the law — which mere partisanship should have led him to support. “I am against its adoption in Illinois, or in any other place, where I have a right to oppose it,” he responded. “Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.”

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