Jimmy Carter and the Conservative Abandonment of Voting Rights

Being a Georgian and a kiddie volunteer for Jimmy Carter’s first gubernatorial contest in 1966, I thought I was an expert on Most Things Jimmy. But Rick Perlstein, who was seven years old when Carter became our 39th president, has unearthed a proud moment of that presidency which I and probably others watching at the time had all but forgotten: a 1977 election reform initiative which still seems bold in its clear purpose and scope.

Everyone loved to talk about voter apathy, but the real problem, Carter said, was that “millions of Americans are prevented or discouraged from voting in every election by antiquated and overly restricted voter registration laws”—a fact proven, he pointed out, by record rates of participation in 1976 in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, where voters were allowed to register on election day. So he proposed that election-day registration be adopted universally, tempering concerns that such measures might increase opportunities for fraud by also proposing five years in prison and a $10,000 fine as penalties for electoral fraud.

He asked Congress to allot up to $25 million in aid to states to help them comply, and for the current system of federal matching funds for presidential candidates to be expanded to congressional elections. He suggested reforming a loophole in the matching-fund law that disadvantaged candidates competing with rich opponents who funded their campaigns themselves, and revising the Hatch Act to allow federal employees “not in sensitive positions,” and when not on the job, the same rights of political participation as everyone else.

Finally, and most radically, he recommended that Congress adopt a constitutional amendment to do away with the Electoral College—under which, three times in our history (four times if you count George W. Bush 33 years later), a candidate who received fewer votes than his opponent went on to become president—in favor of popular election of presidents. It was one of the broadest political reform packages ever proposed.

As Perlstein notes, Carter’s proposal initially drew support from national leaders of the GOP. But then the engines of the conservative movement became engaged in blocking it, led by Ronald Reagan, making arguments that sound extremely familiar today: real voters don’t need convenience; universal voting will empower looters in league with the Democratic Party; voter fraud will run rampant; and the Electoral College is part and parcel of our infallible system of federalism. The initiative was filibustered to death (in another fine usage of an anti-democratic device), Reagan beat Carter in 1980, and another rock of progress rolled down another long hill.

And now Jimmy Carter, at 90, is suffering from apparently incurable cancer, but is still speaking out:

This spring, when only those closest to him knew of his illness, Jimmy Carter made news on Thom Hartmann’s radio program when he returned to the question of democracy reform. In 1977, he had pledged “to work toward an electoral process which is open to the participation of all our citizens, which meets high ethical standards, and operates in an efficient and responsive manner.” In 2015, he was still at it.

He declared our electoral system a violation of “the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president.”

The best possible tribute to Carter at death’s door is what Perlstein is doing: remembering his finest moments in causes then lost but now redeemable, if we take them up again.

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.