Opinion: US history holds a chilling warning about restricting votes

After researching how similar policies affected democracy in the nineteenth century, I can say: America, please don’t go down this road again. We already know what happens if we do.

In fact, there are some important lessons to be learned from similar efforts in the past.

The first lesson is that tightening access to the vote harms democracy for all. History shows that individual state laws can encourage or discourage popular political participation across the country, radically changing American political culture.
Consider the arc of American democracy from the 1820s to the 1920s. Beginning in the 1820s, most states stopped requiring that white men have property to vote, opening up voting access for the working class and younger voters. turnout increased From about 25% eligible voters in the 1820s, to over 80% in the 1840s, 1860s and 1876s.
After the Civil War, African-American men won the right to vote, participate in popular elections To elect former slaves as sheriffs, congressmen and governors. Although women’s suffrage was still far away, many Americans believed that they lived in a progressive era of expansion.pure democracy, “swept by a populist tide with old racial and class hierarchies and voting restrictions.
but this wave crest around the century In 1876, and for the next 50 years, so-called “reformers” again worked to restrict access. In the South, what did white supremacists introduce new laws designed to bring? A White Virginia Legislator Called, “The elimination of the Negro from the politics of this state.” The formation of the new state barred most black men from voting; For example the number of African American voters in Louisiana, crashed From 130,000 in 1896 to only 1,342 by 1904. Lynchings often enforced this new suffrage. a chilling message There will be voters and activists for Blacks.
In those same years, faith in democracy also fell across the country. Although never experienced anything like the brutality of Southern politics, after the controversial presidential election of 1876 many northern elites began to condemn majority rule in politics. In the Gilded Age, affluent Americans saw large, populist democracy with massive participation by working class and immigrant voters, and began to grumble about the “public pest” of popular voting rights. Northern states passed their own laws which were designed with an observer at the time relaxed me The “secret reason” was to discourage poor voters, and well-connected politicians cited a “reaction against democracy” in elite circles.
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Voting collapsed. Between 1896 and 1924, participation fell Back from 80% to less than 50%, and remained mediocre for much of the next century. African-Americans and working-class whites – the population most promised by “pure democracy” optimism after the Civil War – were hit hardest. The lesson is clear – a culture of participation can be built between 1820 and 1876, and it can also be destroyed in the next 50 years.
Another clear lesson from the 19th century is that the fraudulent claims of election losers are a handy tool to curtail voting. while there is no credible evidence Of significant fraud in US elections today, there was certainly a lot in the 1800s. But most shockingly, the unsubstantiated claims of fraud made by White Southern Democrats against new black voters after the Civil War were filed against — or losing to parties in the North — that we hear today. A senator who complained in 1874 that conspiracy theorists treated every elected official “as if he were a rude trickster,” sounds incensed like a Texas election official. who worried Last month “the default assumption is that county election officials are bad actors.”
What Jim Crow Looks Like in 2021

Perhaps more alarmingly familiar than new state laws prohibiting voting are the efforts to monitor partisan turnout on Election Day. It is this new development that causes me the most concern, because the record is so clear about the pitfalls of turning polling places into partisan war-houses. For much of the 1800s, partisan voting watchers, “challengers,” “shoulder hitters” and “bloodzen men” used intimidation, “knock downs” and “allings” (literally, “knock downs” and “allings”) to swing elections. Patrolling polling places using As in a municipal election in Baltimore in 1859, often, partisan election observers clashed with rivals on the other side, with eight bullets, four stabs and two dozen beatings across the city. Americans were used to the post-election reports, called “election outrage”.

Partisan voting watchers inevitably attract similar activists from the other side, starting a spiral arms race in elections. And with many of these laws being introduced in battleground states, such as Florida, Texas, and Georgia, it’s not hard to imagine a confrontation between rival poll-watchers on Election Day and voting safely for ordinary voters. makes it impossible.

After studying the “dirty tricks” of the 19th century in the archives, I am amazed to see them re-dream in the 21st century. Of course, it’s not as if these later oppressors are doing their historical research, they’re simply falling back on the partisan argument, as were the Democrats and Republicans who introduced these ideas 150 years ago. As long as legislators value their clan’s victory over a majority victory, they will continue to be dangerously creative on Election Day.

One strength of American democracy is its consistency: We have operated under the same basic system of government for longer periods of time than almost any other country on Earth. Which means we have a deep record of what reforms cause popular self-governance – and which reforms do harm. We’ve learned so much about voting rights and voter suppression over the centuries and today again made a mistake in some of our old, ugly missteps. By this point, we should know better.


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