The Right to Vote

Until the last election, most Americans believed that the right to vote was a cardinal political principle shared across the political spectrum. That right includes not only the opportunity to cast a ballot but also to have one's ballot fairly counted. Part of the shock of election 2000 for many of us lay in the recognition that even basic electoral rights are far from assured. The enduring significance of this election may well lie less in the choice of a president than in the closer scrutiny of the principles and practices of our democracy. That scrutiny should start with an examination of the history of voting. Such an examination may suggest some goals and strategies for electoral reform.

Many standard US history texts portray a past governed by steady political progress. Long before European nations were prodded by socialist movements to extend the suffrage, the US had already extended voting rights to all white males. True, African Americans, Native Americans, and women had to fight for these rights, but they were eventually folded into a roaring democracy that fully accepted the principle of universal voting. Yet in a book now likely to receive the full attention it deserves, Duke University historian Alexander Keyssar has effectively challenged this perspective. A reading of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic Books, 467 pp., cloth, $30.00) makes it hard to believe that the tortuous voting technology and registration procedures faced by poor and minority communities in Florida -- and elsewhere -- are entirely accidental

From its inception, American democracy has been torn by competing conceptions of political rights. One school holds voting to be a privilege accorded only to those whose education and/or wealth renders them fit and sufficiently independent to make sound political judgments. The opposing view holds that voting is a universal human right and that any sentient person can understand his or her interests well enough to vote.

The latter perspective is more salient in our celebratory histories and media self-portrayals. But part of the genius of Keyssar is to show the many sub rosa incursions of the aristocratic concept of democracy.

From the perspective of our recent election, no story is more telling than Keyssar's account of Reconstruction. We all know that the 15th Amendment outlaws denial of political rights by reason of race. But Congress considered and failed to enact a more sweeping proposal that also outlawed discrimination by reason of "property, education, or creed." That more sweeping version, which would have invalidated late 19th-century literacy tests used by Southern states effectively to disenfranchise many African Americans -- and significant numbers of poor whites -- failed because it was packaged with a proposal to abolish the electoral college.

Nor were the successful efforts to restrict voting rights in the South unique. The period between the Civil War and World War I saw more subtle but still significant restrictions on voting. In many jurisdictions, potential voters could be turned away from the polls if they paid no taxes, failed to meet complicated registration and/or residency requirements, or could not pass complicated literacy and civics tests. Keyssar points out that a potent combination of class interest and racially and ethnically motivated fears drove these subtle campaigns to screen the electorate.

Extending the vote to women, the great triumph of the early 20th century, itself displayed a complex relation to other electoral issues. Some advocates of women's suffrage argued that just as African American former slaves deserved the right to vote, so too did women. Other advocates of women's rights argued a reactionary counter case, that women could "blunt" the dangerous political power of former slaves and uneducated immigrant workers.

Late 19th century unwillingness to open broader questions of ballot access worked against women's rights to vote, fears only finally overcome through demographic change and world war. Only as the role the women played in home front mobilization became obvious and vital were women's suffrage advocates able to gain the leverage they needed to achieve constitutional recognition of their claims.

Even in the l930s, the US saw a sizable movement to disenfranchise many voters. Recipients of public welfare were targeted on the grounds they would be puppets of the purported dictator, Franklin Roosevelt. Throughout our history, concerns about the "quality" of voters -- often coupled with efforts by various parties to gain temporary advantage -- have led to subtle and not so subtle means of limiting the vote in various locales.

Two members of Congress, Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) have recently introduced legislation to create a Bipartisan Federal Elections Review Commission. This nonpartisan, 12-member commission would examine such topics as the advisability of proportional voting systems, instant runoff voting, and other election-related issues -- including the Electoral College; voter registration options like same-day registration and universal registration. At the very least such a commission would put the whole question of how universal an effective right to participate in our politics actually is.

Nonetheless, the implications of Keyssar's work are cautionary. Short-term partisan considerations, regional interests, and deeper fears of poor and working-class citizens are still widespread and can impede fundamental reform. Some elected officials in small states have already argued that they benefit from an Electoral College that overweights those states. Yet whatever electoral benefits small states derive are at the cost of fostering opportunities for broadening popular participation in the formation of national majorities. Such participation is both right in itself and in the long run more likely to yield the national policies marginalized regions and groups need if their own economic development is to be enhanced.

More broadly, groups tacitly if not overtly hostile to truly universal voting will continue to be active in many states. Many will cite the need to prevent fraud. Yet one fortuitous result of election 2000 is that it will be harder to deny not only inequities in current practices but voting's checkered history. Requiring voters to prove themselves honest, unlike any other aspect of our justice system, may appear increasingly anomalous in the face of Florida's shady practices.

An election which has exposed the way polling hours, registration practices, network media coverage, electoral laws, campaign finance systems, and other practices serve to exclude many is an excellent context for building cross class and multi-ethnic coalitions around electoral reform. Just as post- Reconstruction voting restrictions were ended by the resistance of an active bi-racial and cross class coalitions the obvious inequities of our era may elicit effective grass roots politics. Such efforts can benefit from Keyssar's careful and provocative work.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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