Disenfranchisement Is Not a New Idea

At WaPo’s Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein makes a very important point about the “war on voting” that bears repeating:

Some textbook treatments of the franchise in U.S. history treat voting as a gradual but sustained series of victories, taking the nation from propertied white men in the eighteenth century to, eventually, the vote for all adults eighteen and up. That story is wrong.

A more accurate version of the story is that plenty of people who once had the vote then lost it. The most dramatic example of this is African Americans in the post-reconstruction South. But there are plenty of other examples, especially if we properly understand things that make voting more difficult (such as the imposition of the separate step of voter registration in the late 19th and early 20th century) as a form of restricting the franchise. We may be in the process of undergoing a similar restriction right now; indeed, that’s probably one of the key things at stake in the next few election cycles.

Aside from the eligibility to vote, roadblocks to voting have had a large and varying impact on actual ballot participation. It’s often forgotten that turnout rates are vastly lower than they once were in this country. The top five presidential elections in U.S. history in terms of turnout by the eligible voting age population were, in descending order, 1876, 1860, 1840, 1888 and 1892.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.