Although the U.S. Supreme Court has identified the right to vote as a fundamental right, the U.S. Constitution phrases such voting less as an affirmative right than as a right guarded by prohibitions based on race (the Fifteenth Amendment), sex (the Nineteenth Amendment), failure to pay poll taxes (the Twenty-fourth Amendment), or age between 18 and 20 (the Twenty-sixth Amendment). In addition, the Supreme Court narrowed durational residency requirements in a Tennessee case known as Dunn v. Blumstein (1972).
In early U.S. history, voting rights were largely restricted to white males, with some colonies also limiting the vote to church members and property holders. Although Jacksonian democracy is often credited with expanding votes for white males, this often took place against the background of restricting it for others. Despite the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, many states continued to restrict votes by African Americans through the use of poll taxes, literacy clauses, grandfather clauses, and by winking at physical intimidation on the part of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups.
One of the signal accomplishments of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson was the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which specifically targeted states (most in the deep South), which had long restricted African American voting. This law was successfully extended on a number of occasions, although in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder, that the data that provided for this targeting had become outdated and that these states no longer had to get federal preclearance to change voting rules.
Although this decision is being blamed for the spate of proposed state laws designed to restrict early and mail-in balloting, requiring state-issued identification cards, and reducing the number of polling places and the times that they are open, the primary impetus for such recent proposed legislation is the last presidential election, in which it is generally acknowledged that Democrats profited especially from provisions for early voting and write-in voting, many prompted by the COVID-19 epidemic.
Republican state lawmakers can, in such circumstances, take one of two approaches. They can do what Democrats who largely dominated southern politics did from the 1890s until the early 1960s and seek to suppress voting by groups, especially African Americans, who are likely to vote against them, or they can decide how they can tailor their own message to such groups. At present, most appear to be pursuing the former course.
In his first press conference, President Biden has classified such an approach as “sick,” and I think there are strong reasons to agree. American is becoming browner by the decade, with projections showing that the U.S. will likely be “minority white” by 2045. Those who feel threatened by this trend can react, as southern Democrats once did, by seeking to raise barriers to voting access, which are more likely to fall upon such minorities, but in the long run, this would appear to be a losing strategy.
More to the point, it undercuts the democratic-republican foundations of a Constitution that is supposed to be grounded on “We the People.” It further undermines the connection between rights and responsibilities.
There is what appears to be an inordinate fear of voting fraud, but such fears appear highly exaggerated, and there is no evidence that the poor and racial minorities who are most disadvantaged by proposed state laws are more likely to be engaged in such fraud than are others. Voting by mail is no recent innovation, and there are measures in place that already ensure voting integrity including substantial penalties for anyone caught for voting fraud.
The situation is somewhat asymmetrical in that there are no similar penalties for making baseless claims of electoral fraud, although the recent civil actions brought by the Dominion Voting Systems, which manufactures voting machines, suggests that such unsubstantial claims might rise to the level of defamation, and be subject to compensatory and even punitive damages.
It appears as though many Republican Party leaders think they can win, not by growing their base, but by disqualifying members of their loyal opposition. One doesn’t need to take a Dale Carnegie course in order to ascertain that this is not a great way to win friends and influence people!
Alexis de Tocqueville argued in the 19th century that democracy was a rising tide. President Lincoln later said that American democracy was the “last best hope of mankind.” Today, there are an increasing number of autocrats in Russia, China, Turkey, Myanmar, North Korea, and elsewhere who think otherwise. I’m going to cast my vote with those who still see universal suffrage and government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as the best hope for a future in which all voices are valued and all votes are counted.
Dr. John R. Vile is a Professor of Political Science and Dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University.