The 2012 general election campaign is likely to be a fight for every last vote, which means that it will also be a fight over who gets to cast one.
Partisan skirmishing over election procedures has been going on in state legislatures across the country for several years. Republicans have called for cutbacks in early voting, an end to same-day registration, higher hurdles for ex-felons, the presentation of proof-of-citizenship documents and regulations discouraging registration drives. The centerpiece of this effort has been a national campaign to require voters to present particular photo ID documents at the polls. Characterized as innocuous reforms to preserve election integrity, beefed-up ID requirements have passed in more than a dozen states since 2005 and are still being considered in more than 20 others.
Opponents of the laws, mostly Democrats, claim that they are intended to reduce the participation of the young, of the poor and of minorities, who are most likely to lack government-issued IDs—and also most likely to vote Democratic.
Conflict over exercising the right to vote has been a longstanding theme in our history. The overarching trend, which we celebrate, has been greater inclusion: property requirements were dropped; racial barriers were formally eliminated; women were enfranchised.
Yet there have always been counter trends. While the franchise expanded during some moments and in some places, it contracted in others, depriving Americans of a right they had once held. Between 1790 and 1850 - the period when property requirements were being dropped—four Northern states disenfranchised African-American voters, and New Jersey halted a 17-year experiment permitting women to vote. During this same period, nine states passed laws excluding “paupers” from political rights.
After Reconstruction, both major political parties attempted to constrict the electorate, albeit in different locales. In the South—as is well known—Democratic state legislatures employed a variety of devices, including literacy tests, poll taxes, “understanding” clauses and, eventually, Democratic primaries restricted to whites. As a result, African Americans were largely excluded from electoral participation from the 1890s until the 1960s.
In the North, similar, if less draconian, legal changes, generally sponsored by Republicans, targeted (among others) the millions of immigrant workers pouring into the country. In 1921, for example, New York State adopted an English-language literacy requirement for voters that remained in force (and was enforced) for decades. Almost invariably, these new limits on the franchise were fueled by partisan interests and ethnic or racial tensions; they were embraced by respectable Americans, like the eminent historian Francis Parkman, who had come to view universal suffrage as a “questionable blessing.”
Many of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century laws operated not by excluding specific classes of citizens but by erecting procedural obstacles that were justified as measures to prevent fraud or corruption. It was to “preserve the purity of the ballot box” that legislatures passed laws requiring voters to bring their sealed naturalization papers to the polls or to present written evidence that they had canceled their registration at any previous address or to register annually, in person, on one of only two Tuesdays.
The new procedures were widely recognized, by both their advocates and their targets, as having a far greater impact on some groups of voters—immigrants, blue-collar workers, the poor—than on others, and they often succeeded. In Pittsburgh in 1906, a personal registration law, sponsored by Republicans to check the influence of a crusading reformer, cut the number of registered voters in half.
In the 1930s, “pauper exclusion” laws were invoked to disenfranchise jobless men and women who were receiving relief. In 2000, Massachusetts disenfranchised prisoners after they formed an organization to promote inmate rights.
The targets of exclusionary laws have tended to be similar for more than two centuries: the poor, immigrants, African Americans, people perceived to be something other than “mainstream” Americans. No state has ever attempted to disenfranchise upper-middle-class or wealthy white male citizens.
The current wave of procedural restrictions on voting, including strict photo ID requirements, ought to be understood as the latest chapter in a not always uplifting story: Americans of both parties have sometimes rejected democratic values or preferred partisan advantage to fair democratic processes. Acknowledging the realities of our history should lead all of us to be profoundly skeptical of laws that burden, or impede, the exercise of what Lyndon B. Johnson called “the basic right, without which all others are meaningless.” More is at stake here than the outcome of the 2012 election. Even a cursory survey of world events over the last 20—or 100—years makes plain that democracies are fragile, that democratic institutions can be undermined from within. Ours are no exception.
Despite all the recent talk of “grand bargains,” little attention has been paid to the unraveling of a truly grand bargain that has been at the center of public policy in the United States for more than a century.
That bargain—which emerged in stages between the 1890s and 1930s—established an institutional framework to balance the needs of the American people with the vast inequalities of wealth and power wrought by the triumph of industrial capitalism. It originated in the widespread apprehension that the rapidly growing power of robber barons, national corporations and banks (like J.P. Morgan’s) was undermining fundamental American values and threatening democracy.
Such apprehensions were famously expressed in novelist Frank Norris’s characterization of the nation’s largest corporations—the railroads—as an “octopus” strangling farmers and small businesses. With a Christian rhetorical flourish, William Jennings Bryan denounced bankers’ insistence on a deflationary gold standard as an attempt to “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” A more programmatic, and radical, stance was taken by American Federation of Labor convention delegates who in 1894 advocated nationalizing all major industries and financial corporations. Hundreds of socialists were elected to office between 1880 and 1920.
Indeed, a century ago many, if not most, Americans were convinced that capitalism had to be replaced with some form of “cooperative commonwealth”—or that large corporate enterprises should be broken up or strictly regulated to ensure competition, limit the concentration of power and prevent private interests from overwhelming the public good. In the presidential election of 1912, 75 percent of the vote went to candidates who called themselves “progressive” or “socialist.”
Such views, of course, were vehemently, sometimes violently, opposed by more conservative political forces. But the political pressure from anti-capitalists, anti-monopolists, populists, progressives, working-class activists and socialists led, over time, to a truly grand bargain.
The terms were straightforward if not systematically articulated. Capitalism would endure, as would almost all large corporations. Huge railroads, banks and other enterprises—with a few exceptions—would cease to be threatened with nationalization or breakup. Moreover, the state would service and promote private business.
In exchange, the federal government adopted a series of far-reaching reforms to shield and empower citizens, safeguarding society’s democratic character. First came the regulation of business and banking to protect consumers, limit the power of individual corporations and prevent anti-competitive practices. The principle underlying measures such as the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the Glass-Steagall Act (1933)—which insured bank deposits and separated investment from commercial banking—was that government was responsible for protecting society against the shortcomings of a market economy. The profit motive could not always be counted on to serve the public’s welfare.
The second prong of reform was guaranteeing workers’ right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. The core premise of the 1914 Clayton Act and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935—born of decades of experience—was that individual workers lacked the power to protect their interests when dealing with large employers. For the most poorly paid, the federal government mandated a minimum wage and maximum hours.
The third ingredient was social insurance. Unemployment insurance (1935), Social Security (1935), and, later, Medicaid and Medicare (1965) were grounded in the recognition that citizens could not always be self-sufficient and that it was the role of government to aid those unable to fend for themselves. The unemployment-insurance program left unrestrained employers’ ability to lay off workers but recognized that those who were jobless through no fault of their own (a common occurrence in a market economy) ought to receive public support.
These measures shaped the contours of U.S. political and economic life between 1940 and 2000: They amounted to a social contract that, however imperfect, preserved the dynamism of capitalism while guarding citizens against the power imbalances and uncertainties that a competitive economy produces. Yet that bargain—with its vision of balance between private interests and public welfare, workers and employers, the wealthy and the poor—has been under attack by conservatives for decades. And the attacks have been escalating.
The regulation of business is decried now, as it was in 1880, as unwarranted interference in the workings of the market: Regulatory laws (including antitrust laws) are weakly enforced or vitiated through administrative rule-making; regulatory agencies are starved through budget cuts; Glass-Steagall was repealed, with consequences that are all too well known; and the financial institutions that spawned today’s economic crisis - by acting in the reckless manner predicted by early twentieth-century reformers—are fighting further regulation tooth and nail. Private-sector employers’ fierce attacks on unions since the 1970s contributed significantly to the sharp decline in the number of unionized workers, and many state governments are seeking to delegitimize and weaken public-sector unions. Meanwhile, the social safety net has frayed: Unemployment benefits are meager in many states and are not being extended to match the length of the downturn; Republicans are taking aim at Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and Obamacare. The real value of the minimum wage is lower than it was in the 1970s.
These changes have happened piecemeal. But viewed collectively, it’s difficult not to see a determined campaign to dismantle a broad societal bargain that served much of the nation well for decades. To a historian, the agenda of today’s conservatives looks like a bizarre effort to return to the Gilded Age, an era with little regulation of business, no social insurance and no legal protections for workers. This agenda, moreover, calls for the destruction or weakening of institutions without acknowledging (or perhaps understanding) why they came into being.
In a democracy, of course, the ultimate check on such campaigns is the electoral system. Titans of industry may wield far more power in the economic arena than average citizens, but if all votes count equally, the citizenry can protect its core interests—and policies—through the political arena. This makes all the more worrisome recent conservative efforts to alter electoral practices and institutions. Republicans across the nation have sponsored ID requirements for voting that are far more likely to disenfranchise legitimate (and relatively unprivileged) voters than they are to prevent fraud. Last year, the Supreme Court, reversing a century of precedent, ruled that corporate funds can be used in support of political campaigns. Some Tea Partyers even want to do away with the direct election of senators, adopted in 1913. These proposals, too, seem to have roots in the Gilded Age—a period when many of the nation’s more prosperous citizens publicly proclaimed their loss of faith in universal suffrage and democracy.
Keyssar, Alexander. 2011. “How Americans Vote.” Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy 10 (4). Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy: 471-473. Publisher's Version