There is no democracy without the vote. There is no democratic legitimacy. There is no rule of law. And yet the vote has been contested throughout our country’s almost 250 year history. We think most often of the march toward universal suffrage rights for all adult citizens: the vote for all white men in the 1820s and 1830s, the extension of voting rights to African-American men in 1870 (15th Amendment) and women in 1920 (19th Amendment). But these de jure enactments have never been the whole story.
By the late 1870s the federal government had withdrawn support for African-American voting rights in the South. By the 1890s African-American voting rights had been all but extinguished throughout the former rebel states through a mix of paramilitary violence, an accommodating federal judiciary and national indifference. But this wasn’t the only change in late 19th century America. Both at the level of politics and elite ideology there was a retreat from democracy. We know this from the attack on the voting rights of so-called “freedmen,” but we also see it in resistance to voting rights for the rapidly rising immigrant population, often made up of newcomers from alien-seeming cultures in Eastern and Southern Europe. As one of the early articles in our series explains, much of the apparatus of voter registration which we now largely take for granted was created in part not to make voting possible but to limit it.
Through much of the middle decades of the 20th century, the battle over voting rights was part of the broader effort to dismantle the system of apartheid which had prevailed in the South since the 1880s and 1890s. Laws like poll taxes, grandfather clauses and the like were struck down in court battles. Congress put the federal government on the side of black suffrage when it passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the real work of enfranchisement, before and after 1965, happened on the ground in voter registration drives in the South as African-Americans sought to vote in the face of decades of extra-judicial violence which had undergirded and enforced the Jim Crow system.