Who’s rigging our elections? Ask Republicans and they’ll insist that Democrats promote voter fraud through early balloting, same-day registration and lax oversight that encourages illegal immigrants to vote. Nonsense, Democrats will say. It’s the GOP that’s trying to disenfranchise young, poor and minority voters by requiring picture IDs at polling places and bringing court cases intended to eliminate federal oversight of voting practices in many Southern states. As Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, reminds us in “The Fight to Vote,” such disputes are not new: Voter eligibility and qualifications have been at the heart of the struggle for American democracy from its outset. After the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvanians debated for 14 years over who should be able to vote, with opponents of universal suffrage like Benjamin Rush deriding it as “a mobocracy.” The book is an engaging, concise history of American voting practices, and despite a heavily partisan treatment of today’s “voting wars,” it offers many useful reforms that advocates on both sides of the aisle should consider.
The first two sections of the book trace American voting patterns from the Founding to the early Progressive Era. Mr. Waldman shows how the right to vote was gradually extended from property owners to, by the mid-1830s, almost all free white men. At every turn, there was opposition to expanding the right to vote.
Many early Americans thought liberty was inextricably linked with property and thus supported restricting the vote to the educated and well-to-do. Mr. Waldman quotes James Kent, a leading law professor opposed to expanding the right to vote in New York in 1821. Attacking rule by “the motley and undefinable population of crowded ports,” he contended that “the tendency of universal suffrage, is to jeopardize the rights of property, and the principles of liberty.” Those who believe universal suffrage is the natural course of a democracy will find many such examples of contrary thought.
Mr. Waldman’s discussion of how the franchise was extended to free blacks in the South after the Civil War, culminating in the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, and then effectively undone in the early Jim Crow era from 1890 to 1910, depicts the ambitions and pressures of that time all too well. He shows how Republicans, motivated in equal parts by idealism and crass power politics (they rightly expected the newly enfranchised blacks to vote for the party that had freed them), first pushed voting rights forward and then meekly allowed them to be eroded. The quasi-guerrilla warfare waged by opponents of Reconstruction had persuaded them that the costs of enfranchising the newly freed slaves far outweighed the benefits.
Full Article: The Right to ‘Mobocracy’ – WSJ.