Voting 'reform' across the ages

Posted: August 08, 2012

By Jonathan Zimmerman

Once upon a time, American elections were rife with corruption. Party bosses bought votes with strong drink and cold cash, or stuffed ballot boxes with bogus names. Then along came the good-government reformers who cleaned up our democracy with new election laws and regulations.

That's the story we all learned in high school. And it's true, up to a point. But it leaves out a crucial fact: Those measures also sought to bar certain people from the polls. The goal of election reform wasn't simply a clean vote; it was also to keep out the "wrong" kind of voter.

Pennsylvania's voter-ID law, which is being challenged in state court, follows this pattern. On its face, it seems neutral and unimpeachable: Who could object to safeguards against fraud? But in practice, as opponents told the court last week, it would make it harder for poor people and minorities to vote.

Since these people are mostly Democrats, voter-ID laws are thought to favor the GOP. In the 10 statehouses that considered voter-ID bills from 2005 to 2007, 95 percent of Republican legislators supported them; only 2 percent of Democratic lawmakers did.

Does that sound neutral to you? Like other electoral reforms across our history, voter-ID laws aim to discourage a subset of citizens from participating. The only thing that's changed is who these voters are.

Questionable blessing

In the late 19th century, during the first great wave of election reform, they were mostly Irish Catholic immigrants. Surging into American cities, they threatened to dislodge the old-guard Protestants who had traditionally dominated municipal politics.

So the old guard fought back with new election regulations: secret ballots, voter registration, literacy tests. Ostensibly, all these reforms aimed to reduce vote-buying and other types of corruption. But they also sought to prevent immigrants from voting in the first place.

As reformer and historian Francis Parkman wrote, the "New England village of olden time" could be "safely and well governed by the votes of every man." But not so the modern city and its largely "foreign" inhabitants, "to whom liberty means license & politics means plunder." Under such conditions, Parkman concluded, "universal suffrage becomes a questionable blessing."

In the South and West, meanwhile, electoral reformers expressed similar worries about blacks and Asians. Often poor and illiterate, these populations would inevitably sell their souls - and their votes - to the highest bidder, reformers warned. Best, then, to keep them away from the polls altogether.

"Universal Suffrage can only mean in plain English the government of ignorance and vice," wrote Charles Francis Adams Jr., a great-grandson of America's second president and a grandson of its sixth. "It means a European, and especially Celtic, proletariat on the Atlantic Coast; an African proletariat on the shores of the Gulf, and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific."

Elected by a whisker

Was there electoral corruption in American cities? Of course. In New York, most notoriously, William "Boss" Tweed lined his pockets with municipal contracts and paid citizens to vote multiple times, often between trips to a bar - or a barber. "When you've voted 'em with their whiskers on, you take 'em to a barber and scrape off the chin fringe," one of Tweed's lieutenants explained. "Then you vote 'em again with the side lilacs and a mustache."

Ironically, the Supreme Court quoted that passage in its 2008 decision upholding a voter-ID law in Indiana. As the court admitted, there was no evidence of present-day voter fraud in the Hoosier State. But there were "flagrant examples of such fraud . . . throughout this Nation's history," the court added.

That's true. But there are also many examples of politicians using supposed anticorruption measures to discourage legitimate voting. In 1895, for example, Republicans in Michigan pushed through a registration law targeting immigrant voters who supported Detroit's progressive Republican mayor, Hazen Pingree. "It will take off the books just about enough Pingree votes to prevent his ever becoming mayor again," the law's sponsor predicted.

There was an echo of that sentiment at a meeting of Pennsylvania GOP activists this summer, where state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai listed several accomplishments of the Republican-led legislature, including: "Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

As in Indiana, officials here have not found a single instance of lawbreaking that would have been prevented by voter ID. There's no latter-day Boss Tweed in Pennsylvania, stealing votes with fraudulent identity cards.

Instead, the whole voter-ID law is itself a fraud. It's designed to suppress voters, not protect them. The only question is who will be suppressed, and what the rest of us will do to protect them.


Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).

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