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Voting Laws: The Last Stand of the Old and the White

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Posted on Apr 4, 2014

By Richard Reeves

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When the Constitution of the first modern democracy, the United States of America, was written, only about 10 percent of the population of the 13 states was granted the right to vote: white men who owned property.

Those were the days, my friend! And it often seems that if 21st-century Republicans had their way, those days would never have ended. Cut to The New York Times of last Sunday under the front-page headline: "GOP IS ENACTING NEW BALLOT CURBS IN PIVOTAL STATES ... Rulings Paved Way—Fewer Places, Hours and Ways to Vote."

"Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin," began the third paragraph of the story, "this winter pushed through measures limiting the time polls are open, in particular cutting into weekend voting favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election."

The Times report records that in the last 15 months, nine states with Republican-controlled legislatures have passed laws designed to reduce voting turnout with such devices as requiring voters to show birth certificates or passports to be allowed to pass through the curtain and reach the little levers of power.

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It is often forgotten that most American elections are controlled by states, not by federal laws. With the District of Columbia included, even presidential elections are conducted under 51 different sets of laws. State legislatures rule. And it is worth remembering that whatever the rules, the most likely voters have always been older and whiter. The same is true of today’s Republican Party.

It is, I suppose, a credit to Republican political talents and interests that they have understood this for a very long time. Decades ago, a young Republican lawyer who would one day become chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, began his political career in a suit and tie, holding a clipboard and challenging minority voters in his state of Arizona, probably potential Democratic voters. Predictably, many of them took one look at his phony official pose and turned around to go home. Another trick was to place make-believe policemen in rented uniforms outside polling places, clipboards in hand.

It worked then. It will work now. One of the first rules of politics, which Democrats also practice where they can, often in districts with large minority group populations, is to find a way to know and control who votes. Both parties, for instance, are eager to gather sympathetic, sometimes confused, residents of nursing homes to vote absentee or be bused to the polls.

So it goes. But what is happening these days is anti-historical. The legal history of American democracy has been to expand, not restrict, the franchise beyond that 10 percent who could vote at the beginning of the 19th century—at least until now.

Property ownership requirements were eliminated by 1850. Literacy tests and poll taxes, first imposed in the late 1850s in Connecticut and Massachusetts to keep away Irish Catholics, and soon, free African-Americans in the South, lasted in many states until the 1970s before simple justice prevailed. It was only in 1913 that states were required to have U.S. senators selected by popular vote rather than by legislatures. Women could not vote until 1920. Native Americans only won the right in 1924. "One man, one vote," the attempt to eliminate gerrymandering, was instituted only in 1962.

So what is happening now has happened before. A dominant voting group, usually nativist white Americans, is trying to hold onto political power for as long as possible as the demographics of the nation change. This time it is the Republican Party that is desperate to turn us back to an earlier time. But their time is running out. History tells us that America is at its best when it lives in the present and thinks in the future.


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