America’s History of Voter Suppression

America’s History of Voter Suppression February 17, 2012

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.

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