This year, 2020, may have been known as the Year of the Voter with celebrations of the passages of the 15th Amendment 150 years ago and the 19th Amendment a century ago, the greatest expansions of suffrage in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, a pandemic, economic nosedive, racial unrest, and natural disasters have commanded our attention, that is until claims of fraud and suppression thrust voting front and center.
Debates over suffrage are as old as our nation. Knowing some of that history may offer some insights into the current controversies.
For 231 years, we have strived to live up to the promise in the opening words of the Constitution — We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union. To be a full partner in “We the People” means being able to vote. The expansion of that right has given us a “more perfect Union.”
Over nearly two centuries, our nation adopted several constitutional amendments and important pieces of legislation that expanded the franchise to include everyone over age 18 regardless of sex or race. This long struggle has been treacherous, debilitating at times and compelling. In the process, three traits have come to define debates over voting.
The first is federalism, the give and take between federal and state governments. Our Constitution guarantees the “people” the right to vote but fails to specify which “people” have that right.
While endorsing the doctrine developed by John Locke that political power was derived from the people, many at the 1787 Philadelphia convention distrusted commoners, believing that pure democracy would eventually result in tyranny through the election of a demagogue who appealed to the masses. Others disagreed, noting that the common man made victory in the Revolutionary War possible.
Should all males have the right to vote or just those who owned property? Deadlocked, the founders punted the question of voter qualifications to the states. We have debated suffrage ever since. The consolation is that the founders created a governmental framework built on compromise that provides future generation with the mechanism to work out their differences.
Congress avoided the issue of voting for 80 years until the aftermath of the Civil War when it desired to extend full citizenship including voting rights to Blacks. Most states, however, refused to cede their authority over suffrage.
They eventually compromised, which is reflected in the 15th Amendment. “The right … to vote shall not be denied … on account of race.” It is a negatively worded directive to the states, not a positive national affirmation of voting rights. It restricted the choices states could make but otherwise left eligibility and administration of voting up to them, permitting Southern states to erect legal barriers that suppressed Black suffrage for the next century. Congress later used the same backhanded wording in the 19th and 26th Amendments, extending suffrage to women and 18- to 20-year-olds.
The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the federalist relationship, regularly striking down efforts to go around state legislatures to expand or suppress voting opportunities. It did carve out an exception by disallowing voting laws and practices based upon race, which the justices ruled violates constitutional guarantees of equality.
A second trait of suffrage is that voting rights have been suppressed about as often as expanded. For example, following the passage of the 15th Amendment, Southern states implemented poll taxes, literacy tests, and other legal barriers to Black voting. Violence reinforced these efforts. Tens of thousands of African Americans suffered death, injury, loss of property and debilitating prejudice trying to vote. Native Americans, Latinos and women did as well but to a lesser extent. By the early 1960s, less than 10% of Blacks voted.
In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA), prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. Among other provisions, states that had a history of voter suppression were required to receive prior clearance from the Department of Justice before changing suffrage policies. The VRA increased minority voting every election through 2012.
A third trait is the tie between voting and political parties. In the early 19th century, parties realized that greater male suffrage could mean more support for their candidates. The Democratic Party under populist President Andrew Jackson put this to effective use by eliminating property requirements.
After the Civil War, Republicans pushed to give the franchise to all males regardless of color while Southern Democrats promoted and benefited from suppressing the Black vote. Democratic president Woodrow Wilson gave the women suffrage amendment a big boost, and the 1920s Republican Party blazed the way to secure voting rights for Native Americans.
Turning their backs on the Southern wing of their party, Democrats passed the VRA and Lyndon Johnson, the first Southern president in nearly a century, signed it. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the leader of the Southern Democrats, warned that their party would lose the South for the next 30 years if the bill became law. It was an understatement. Republicans soon began to make major political inroads among Southern whites, a voter base that would become the party’s most loyal one.
By the early 1970s, these three traits — federalism, the ebb and flow of expansion and suppression, and the active involvement of political parties — had become inseparable from debates about voting. That remains true today.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series of columns by Massie about voting before Election Day on Nov. 3. His next column: The golden age of voting.