America’s long path to universal voting rights

My memory of what I learned in early grade school about the history of American voting rights went something like this.  Prior to 1776, we were ruled by the king of Great Britain.  He was a tyrant who oppressed us with taxation without representation, so we rebelled and set up a democracy.  (UK readers, I see you rolling your eyes.)

There may have been a brief mention of slaves getting the vote after the Civil War (the slaves themselves weren’t mentioned until we got to the section on the causes of that war), but other than that, I came away with the impression that voting was mostly something we had figured out in 1776 with maybe some fine tuning in 1787.

Yep, the value of a public education.  To be fair to my state’s school system, the picture did get more sophisticated in middle school grades, but not by much.

Of course, the reality is that there had been elections in England for centuries before the American Revolution (which was a conflict against Parliament as much as with the king).  The American colonies had largely inherited the old English voting paradigm, which included allowing voting by males who owned a certain amount of property.  Many colonies also restricted the right to members of approved religious denominations.

The result was at the beginning of the United States, only a relatively small minority of the population could vote.  The exact percentage varied depending on locale, ranging from as low as 40% of adult white males to as high as 80%, depending on the availability and expense of property and the exact voting laws, with some estimates of the overall percentage of the American population that could vote being as low as 6%.

The progress from that initial very limited suffrage to the near universal suffrage we have today happened in what I would call four waves.  The first wave enfranchised most white males, the second wave briefly enfranchised blacks, the third wave women, and the fourth re-enfranchised blacks along with much of the remaining excluded population.

The first wave happened in the early 19th century.  White males who didn’t have the vote were pushing for it, but that by itself wasn’t enough to make it happen.  There was a strong sentiment that only those with a stake in the society should be allowed to vote, as well as a concern that too broad a franchise might allow elections to be swayed by a nascent working class enslaved to their employer’s interests.  Many fretted that America might someday become a country of working class people instead of farmers.

Proponents of broader suffrage argued that fears of a working class country were unfounded, that America would always be predominantly agrarian.  The proponents had to be careful in the arguments they used, focusing on why their particular group should have the vote without implying that voting was any kind of general right.  Such a right might imply that women, blacks, and natives should be allowed to vote, which everyone regarded as crazy talk.

The success of this wave came from a number of factors.  The rise of national political parties played a role, allowing voters who had the right to vote in one type of election to punish a party that opposed their right to vote in other elections.  In addition, the War of 1812 shed light on the fact that soldiers without the right to vote had a lower incentive to fight.  But perhaps the largest factor may have been new states in the west, who used broad white male suffrage to attract migrants, which put competitive pressure on the eastern states to expand their own franchise.

The result was that by more or less 1850, if you were male, white, and paid taxes (the standard that replaced the property requirements), you probably could vote.  Still excluded at this point were women, blacks, most native Americans, paupers, and most immigrants.  The first half of the 19th century was a period of mostly optimism about democratic ideals.

The second half wouldn’t be.  As America indeed started to become the working class society people of a previous generation had feared, those fears came roaring back, leading to widespread nativism and discrimination.  When we think of the later 19th century, we often might think of the Civil War and Reconstruction, of blacks getting the right to vote.  This was the second wave I mentioned above.  But it happened in an era of otherwise rising skepticism about the ideals of a broad democracy, which is likely why the second wave mostly floundered.

As Reconstruction ended and white southerners seized back control of their states, the north showed little interest in stopping the subsequent large scale disenfranchisement of blacks.  Yes, the 15th Amendment was on the books, theoretically guaranteeing blacks the right to vote, but after the first decade or so of its ratification, only the most brazen violations of it were policed, generally allowing Jim Crow era laws to develop.  It was a stark demonstration that liberal laws are impotent if the people in power won’t enforce them.

The late 19th century turn against democracy also resulted in strong headwinds for the women’s suffrage movement, which is usually considered to have started in 1848.  Those headwinds resulted in little progress before 1900, although women did often get the right to vote in some local elections such as for school board positions, and a more broad right in a few western states.

The third wave for women’s suffrage didn’t really heat up until the early 20th century, when women’s groups became far more organized and aggressive.  In addition, the industrial nature of World War I demonstrated that women could contribute substantially to war efforts, something that had been a convincing argument in the first two waves.  That and there was an international movement in several democratic countries to enfranchise women.  All of which culminated in the 19th Amendment being ratified in 1920.  (Interestingly, this was followed by a very conservative decade in American politics.)

The Great Depression in the 1930s led to something of an ad-hoc change.  Paupers continued to be largely excluded from the voting franchise, with technically anyone receiving any kind of welfare considered a pauper.  However, the large scale unemployment and hardship of the 1930s made officials reluctant to label anyone on relief a pauper, which largely ended that exclusion.  It became kind of an inversion of the situation with the 15th Amendment.

The fourth wave started with World War II.  Part of the war propaganda on the western side focused on the fact that we were democracies and the enemies weren’t.  (I guess conveniently ignoring the realities in Russia.)  That and the fact that the Nazis saw American racial laws as a source of inspiration for their own policies, policies which resulted in the Holocaust.  This seemed to turn a harsh light on the differences between the ideals of American democracy and the reality.  It was also recognized that America’s racial issues gave the communists a Cold War propaganda issue.

Nevertheless, the fourth wave was a long slog, starting with desegregation of army barracks in the late 1940s, and civil resistance from blacks themselves in the 1950s.  Eventually the result was the Civil Rights Era.  This resulted in laws passed in the 1960s guaranteeing blacks the right to vote, finally fulfilling the promise of the 15th Amendment a century after it has been ratified.

But the Civil Rights Era also included a rush to correct other longstanding issues with American voting, so that many groups that had been excluded by a variety of underhanded techniques, such as American Indians, mobile workers, recent immigrants, paupers, and other smaller groups were finally enfranchised.  It was a period when the Federal government finally took an active role in ensuring the right to vote.  By the early 1970s, America finally had near universal suffrage.  (“Near” because in many states convicted felons, insane people, and other similar categories continue to be excluded.)

When I was younger, I never realized just how recent this development had been.  Nor how fragile or incomplete it was until the 2000 election with all the disputes about voting laws and the electoral college, or again when in recent years the Supreme Court invalidated substantial portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not to mention the election we just had.

As always, I find reading history helps to put our own times in context, which can be comforting in some ways but alarming in others.  Reading about voting rights history in America shows that voter eligibility has always been a partisan issue, and that the times we live in aren’t nearly as uniquely blinkered as we might fear.  On the other hand, it also shows that our conception of democracy is a very recent one, and that there’s no guarantee that past progress can’t be reversed.  Vigilance is always required.

therighttovotecoverMuch of the information in this post came from ‘The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States‘ by Alexander Keyssar.  I can’t say this was an exciting read, and the Kindle version had some unacceptable formatting issues, but I found it a fascinating source of information for this topic.

10 thoughts on “America’s long path to universal voting rights

    1. They definitely wanted checks on the passions of the populace. I wonder what the ones who were still alive as suffrage was becoming more widespread thought about it. Or what they thought about Andrew Jackson, arguably the first president elected by the population.


  1. Very nicely written, Mike, and an engaging quick read for an outsider looking in (from England), one uneducated in American political history. It would be interesting to read a follow-up piece from you on corporate influence on contemporary democracy in the U.S. – say from WWII onwards.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Hariod. Interesting idea on corporate influence. Any ideas on source material?

      I suspect the history of corporate influence is the history of corporations. Think of the East India Company’s influence. From that standpoint, I think business influences in the US, including influence through corporations, actually began in the colonial period, and have been there all along.

      Based on what I know of history, it actually feels like their influence was stronger prior to the Great Depression, albeit with a resurgence since the 1980s, but I’ll admit I haven’t carefully studied this subject.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Chris Hedges tackled the subject, so his writings might be a rich source, if perhaps seeming a little bleak in outlook to some:

        I’ve not read Sheldon Wolin’s books, only articles, but he seems a good source too; this, from 2003, seems prescient:

        “Representative institutions no longer represent voters. Instead, they have been short-circuited, steadily corrupted by an institutionalized system of bribery that renders them responsive to powerful interest groups whose constituencies are the major corporations and wealthiest Americans. The courts, in turn, when they are not increasingly handmaidens of corporate power, are consistently deferential to the claims of national security. Elections have become heavily subsidized non-events that typically attract at best merely half of an electorate whose information about foreign and domestic politics is filtered through corporate-dominated media. Citizens are manipulated into a nervous state by the media’s reports of rampant crime and terrorist networks, by thinly veiled threats of the Attorney General and by their own fears about unemployment. What is crucially important here is not only the expansion of governmental power but the inevitable discrediting of constitutional limitations and institutional processes that discourages the citizenry and leaves them politically apathetic.”


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hariod, I appreciate the recommendations. Thanks!

          Reading that quote, I’m struck by a danger we all have to be on guard against: assuming that because the voters made choices we disagreed with, that they must have been duped. I see that sentiment a lot right now from my fellow liberals. But where I live, I’m surrounded by Republicans, and most of them assume Democrats are the ones being duped.

          That’s not to say that I don’t think moneyed interests affect elections. I do. But from what I’ve read of history, they always have. See East India Company, Tammany Hall, robber barons of the 19th century, or the 1939 movie ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’. In the earliest elections, voters were routinely and openly bribed with whiskey. In the election of 1860, people in the south couldn’t have voted for Lincoln even if they wanted to, since the southern states wouldn’t allow Republican ballots (each party printed their own back then). Our elections have never been pristinely fair or clean debates on public policy.

          Yet, despite it all, voters do have minds of their own, usually know when their own situations are getting worse, and generally have no problem voting out whoever the incumbent is when it is. And it’s worth noting that virtually none of the people with money wanted to see Trump elected.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, of course, Mike, I don’t think Wolin meant to suggest Western Democratic models have ever been perfect, or even that they’re capable of such a state. Still, as so often appears the case, adhering to a dictum of ‘follow the money’ leads us to clues as to the true state of affairs. Voters may, as you say, “have minds of their own”, but what choices do they have given the two-party system and its collective enslavement to moneyed influence?

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Hariod,
      I definitely agree that there is too much money in politics (at least US politics), or to be more concise, politicians are too dependent on raising money. (Senators and representatives reportedly feel like they need to spend 80-90% of their time doing it.) I would love to see mandatory public campaign financing for anyone who can gather a specified minimum number of signatures among whatever constituency they’re running for, coupled with an absolute prohibition on candidates accepting private donations. It wouldn’t prevent independent advertising, but given our first amendment, I suspect that will always be the case. Unfortunately, I think the probability of that happening anytime in the near future is nil.

      That said, money isn’t everything. Most self financed billionaires who run for office lose, indicating that there’s more to it than simply carpet bombing the media with advertising. Trump is a major outlier in this regard. And Clinton spent about twice as much as he did in this last election. Candidates need money to get the word out, but once they have enough, more doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference.

      But you’re right that the money primary is the first filter in our system. Even with public financing, there would still need to be a filter for someone to get on the ballot. Getting past that first filter will always require that a potential candidate (particularly a candidate for president) have lots of friends and organization. I actually don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing for someone trying to get in public office.

      But it means that successful candidates, in order to attract a broad coalition, will by necessity not be most voter’s first passionate pick, mainly because all voters will never agree on a first pick. (This is why I’d also love to see ranked voting. The state of Maine just introduced it. Hopefully it will take off. It would allow people to express their passionate choice, but then indicate which candidates they’d be willing to settle for.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Totally in agreement with you on the suggestions you make, Mike. Just to clarify one thing, when I said “follow the money” – if we want to know the true state of affairs – then I wasn’t purely talking about campaign finances, moreso why certain legislation gets passed – i.e. who benefits from it, financially?

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Hariod, thanks for the clarification. I probably should have explicitly stated that I see the two as intractably linked. It’s illegal for a lobbyist to bribe a congressman, but if the lobbyist has a history of arranging campaign donations for that congressman, well…

          Of course, that’s not the only way that quid pro quo arrangements can happen. There are an endless number of innovative ways for people in power and people with money to scratch each others backs while following the letter of whatever ethics laws are in force. I fear that may always be true. (Well, unless we reach the point where we turn society over to AIs or something.)

          Liked by 1 person

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