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.
Much 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.