The states are not friends of voting rights in America


The story of voting rights in America yields two truths. First, even though since 1787 there has been an overall expansion of voting rights en route to universal adult franchise, it also has been a partisan battle often featuring efforts to disenfranchise. Second, left to their own devices, states are not the drivers of expanded voting rights. It has happened only when the national government has entered to guarantee, expand and protect rights. 

This is why Congress needs to enact federal legislation to federalize voting rights and enable national standards and enforcement.

America may be the world’s first experiment with popular government, but its record from the start in recognizing the right to vote is poor. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, disputes over slavery, representation and the selection of the president left the issue of voting rights out of the Constitution and in the hands of the states to decide. In 1787, state laws limited voting rights to white, Protestant males with property who were at least age 21. 

A few states prior to the Civil War expanded voting rights on their own. They did so by dropping property qualifications in lieu of poll taxes to ensure that only those with an economic stake in the community could vote. Yet, serious expansion of voting rights did not come until after the Civil War. Republican Party support of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, the 14th Amendment in 1868, and the deployment of federal troops in the South during Reconstruction led to a dramatic increase in voting rights and representation for the freed males slaves.

But the disputed 1876 election — in which Democrat Samuel Tilden conceded the White House to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes on condition that federal troops be removed from the South — ended Reconstruction and support for voting rights for Black males. It ushered in a nearly century-long “first great disenfranchisement” in American history. This was the era of Jim Crow, in which mostly southern Democratic Party states employed a variety of mechanisms — grandfather laws, poll taxes, literacy tests and felon disenfranchisement laws — as tools to entrench single-party rule and prevent African Americans from voting. States also acted to prevent women, the poor, and young people from voting.

All the major initiatives to expand voting came as a result of federal legislation or action. The 17th Amendment (1913) gave individuals the right to vote for senators. The 19th (1920) and 26th (1971) Amendments banned denial of voting based on sex or age. The 23rd Amendment (1961) gave the District of Columbia electoral votes for president. The 24th Amendment (1964) banned poll taxes. Along with these amendments, the Supreme Court in United States v. Classic (1941) ruled that Article I, Section Two of the Constitution gave individuals a right to vote in federal elections. In Reynolds v. Sims (1864) and Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966), the court located a right to vote in state and local elections in the First and 14th Amendments.  

Most importantly, the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought federal enforcement of voting rights, compelling states to pre-clear changes in election rules and desist from diluting voting rights. Even the Supreme Court’s cases on reapportionment and enforcement of the “one person, one vote” mandate were a major defense of voting rights. Then the 1993 Motor Voter Act expanded opportunities to register people to vote. All of this legislation and court action shared a common denominator — federal intervention into and protection of voting rights against states hostile toward expanding franchise.

Now we are witnessing efforts in the “second great disenfranchisement” in American history — this time led not by Democrats, but by Republicans. It began in the 1990s with claims that Motor Voter would lead to fraud. Then after the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida, which resulted in the court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore, Republicans cried voter fraud. They demanded voter identification to stem nearly nonexistent fraud. It degenerated in the past election into the chant of a stolen election, and now there’s a new round of proposed 250 voting restrictions in 43 states, mostly Republican initiated. 

All of this is taking place after the Supreme Court, in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, effectively dismantled the Voting Rights Act and hobbled federal enforcement of franchise rights.

The “second great disenfranchisement” is a repeat of the first: Withdraw federal protection of voting rights and free states to restrict. This time it is not poll taxes or literacy tests, but restrictions on early voting, drop boxes and poll locations — different techniques but the same goals, same results.

States may be laboratories of democracy in many ways, but not where it matters most in protecting voting rights. Voting is the most fundamental of all rights, critical to protection of all others. The only way to defend universal franchise and, as former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once said, give meaning to the first three words of the Constitution — “We, the People” — is for Congress to enact legislation reasserting a federal role in protecting voting rights.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @ProfDSchultz.

Tags Black voters Civil Rights Act Disfranchisement Voter suppression Voting Rights Act

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