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NoShoesNoShirtNoVoteTHE 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 19th- and early 20th-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.

Link to original article from The New York Times OpEd


Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard, is the author of “The Right to Vote: the Contested History of Democracy in the United States.”

 

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