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A Brief Note on Voting Restrictions in America

Sign in a Texas Restaurant:


Democracy is Two Wolves and a Lamb Voting on What to Have For Dinner.

Liberty is a Well-Armed Lamb Contesting the Vote.


There is some concern that American commitment to democratic values is declining. This concern is realistic. There is no evidence that Americans want a complete abandonment of elections or the introduction of one-man rule. The odds of a military coup in the United States are near zero. Even a popularly elected strongman would need substantial time to undo the American electoral apparatus. It is unlikely that he would succeed. Barbara Geddes notes that most successful and long-lived dictators have kept electoral machines in place. If anything, elections, even sham ones, serve a useful function in diagnosing potential political problems before they become destabilizing.


American democracy is made particularly robust by the substantial autonomy given to state governments. Even if a federal government is not to any particular region’s taste, more locally acceptable policies can be implemented at the state level. The substantial legal powers of the State of California, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and for that matter, the states of Alabama and Texas allow regional population to implement their own preferred policies, no matter how much they despair of what is occurring in Washington, D.C.


It is best to defer for now a discussion of the presence of election result deniers running elections or the possibilities of altering vote totals using the internet or through dubious vote counting procedures. These new forms of democratic norm violation are in essence, ballot box stuffing. Ballot box stuffing has a long history both in the United States and in other nations. The manipulation of Chicago vote totals by Mayor Daley in 1960 to throw the presidential election to John Kennedy is well known. The Tammany Hall politicians were famous for being able to “get out the vote” even if the votes that were gotten out did not exactly correspond to real living citizens coming out to make those votes. Some American elections have been cleaner than others.


What seems most certain is that there are increasing restrictions on the right to vote. Some of this comes from partisan purging of the voting rolls. There is also the reducing of the number of polling places in neighborhoods populated by “the wrong kind of voters”. Additionally, there is reduced access to absentee or mail-in ballots – generally when “the wrong kind of voters” make disproportionate use of such access. Restrictive definitions of the documentation needed for voter identification and identity checks at the poll add to the burden. This is not to speak of pro-active voter harassment and intimidation.


Generally, these restrictions have been meant to reduce the participation of blacks, Hispanics and urban dwellers in elections. The system is rigged to favor the representation of white, suburban, rural and wealthy voters. The effect of such restrictions is to increase the likelihood that conservative candidates will win at the polls.


Sadly, these measures have a long American history. Virtually every reader of this webpage knows that historically, there have been harsh limits on the legal ability of African Americans to vote. Few readers would be surprised that comparable limits applied to Native Americans. One needs not to be a Critical Race Theorist to recognize that such restrictions increase the political power of whites.


The restriction of women’s right to vote is also well known. This does not necessarily have an effect on left-wing versus right-wing voting, since gender differences in voting patterns are generally modest. However, gender-based restrictions did reduce the size of the American electorate substantially.


The restriction of urban voting in the United States is more subtle – but it exists. Washington, D.C. has never had a congressman or a senator. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and California get only two senators. Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska also get two senators. This has tended to favor conservative interests. A disproportionately rural electorate is more likely to support restricting union power and limiting spending on the urban poor. The rural bias of the American election system is not totally synonymous with upper class privilege. Rural voters have pushed for agricultural credit programs, control over railroad pricing and price supports for the protection of farmers. However, an electoral system that favors the farm vote does not favor urban workers. This, in turn, favors urban manufacturers.


The class bias of historical American electoral systems shows up most in economic restrictions on the right to vote. The United States has seen minimum landowning rules as a requirement for voting. There have been both explicit poll taxes and minimum levels of taxes paid as a requirement of voting. There have been laws banning paupers from voting. There have been literacy requirements – a system which favors upper and middle class voters who tend to be more educated. (States which wish to encourage working class voting have implemented rules that require electoral officials to assist voters who can’t read. Illinois and Colorado, for example have had assistance-to-illiterate requirements since the 1890’s.)


The table below shows a listing of the states that have had class-based restrictions on voting.

Table Restrictions.png

Note that 13 states had a property-ownership requirement, 27 had a tax paying requirement, 11 had a pauper restriction and 19 had a literacy requirement.  Some states had more than one restriction. Delaware, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia had all four. In contrast, out of the fifty states, only thirteen had no class-based restrictions. Two of those are Alaska and Hawaii that only attained statehood in 1959. Of the lower 48 states, only 11 had no form of class based voting restriction.


This is not to say there is anything good about racial restrictions on voting, limiting the vote of African Americans, limiting the votes of native Americans, ballot box stuffing, limiting the political power of urbanites or having election laws favor the wealthy. However, there IS a long, long history of all of these in America. Sadly, all of these have co-existed with the American Constitution. The Founding Fathers favored slavery, favored the seizure of land from Indians, favored male domination, and were sensitive to the needs of wealthy property owners. The document they wrote was meant to be consistent with all of those.


There is no guarantee that recourse to the Constitution will provide any protection to the current limitations of voting rights that are occurring.


The restrictions on voting that are being proposed by conservatives have many precedents.


This does not mean there is anything good about any of this.


But the current restriction of American democratic rights are neither New Impositions or New Injustices.


They represent the return of Old Impositions and Old Injustice.

For More Information

The best history of voting rights in the United States is Alexander Keyssar’s 2000 (revised 2009) Right to Vote: Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York, Basic.


Keyssar is also the source of the table on voting rights by state.


Barbara Geddes et. al’s book on dictatorship, How Dictatorships Work is one of the best books ever written on the subject. See the essay on this website where her book gets reviewed.

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