Power  /  Antecedent

Disenfranchisement: An American Tradition

Invoking the specter of voter fraud to undermine democratic participation is a tactic as old as the United States itself.

... political exclusion and racial subordination in the United States. It is not surprising that politicians, if allowed, would prefer to pick their own voters. The more vexing question is why voter suppression is not more taboo in a country that extols its democratic system as a beacon for the world.

... political exclusion and racial subordination in the United States. It is not surprising that politicians, if allowed, would prefer to pick their own voters. The more vexing question is why voter suppression is not more taboo in a country that extols its democratic system as a beacon for the world.

This election has exposed a broad ambivalence about (and from some quarters, outright disdain for) majoritarian, multiracial democracy. Candidates compete on a playing field designed over generations to protect capital, colonial ambitions, and white supremacy. The anti-majoritarian Senate and Electoral College have rightly come under harsh scrutiny this election cycle. But contests are also distorted by the nation’s gerrymandered districts, a campaign finance system that licenses wide-scale legalized corruption, and immigration and naturalization policies that dictate which residents must live and work under laws that they have no voice in shaping. Millions more are disenfranchised due to incarceration and felony convictions, or because they lived in Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, or the Northern Mariana Islands.

Trump’s voter suppression efforts drew on currents in U.S. political culture that sanction this status quo. Politicians have been zealously using election regulations to sculpt the electorate since the earliest days of the republic. Elites protected their power by diluting or excising altogether the votes of subordinated groups, particularly African Americans, Indigenous people, the poor, women, and immigrants. To do so, lawmakers have barred voters on the basis of race, gender, character, language, literacy, property ownership, pauperism, tax-paying status, mental competency, felony conviction, and failing to properly register to vote. The architects of these policies often presented voting as a privilege—not a right—that can be revoked or restricted to cultivate a virtuous electorate. These restrictions, they argued, ensured the “purity of the ballot box,” the “integrity of the electorate,” and protection against voter fraud. And they often blurred the threat of illegally cast ballots with the alleged dangers posed by nonwhite, unfit, or uncivilized voters.

In popular memory, these practices finally ended with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But despite the civil rights movement’s monumental victories, the battles to shape the electorate have raged on. Charges of voter fraud and tweaks to election and registration administration, which had always played a role in pruning the electorate and suppressing the Black vote, took on increased importance after lawmakers and courts confiscated more nakedly antidemocratic tools. People could not legally be disenfranchised on the basis of fixed characteristics such as gender or race, but they could still forfeit their vote through choices—most importantly, by breaking the law, but also by failing to register to vote by a certain date or lacking proper identification or skipping multiple elections in a row (which can result in being purged from the voter rolls). Fair elections require clear regulations and standards, but bureaucratic hurdles inevitably depress participation by disadvantaged groups. And they have often been deliberately constructed—as an appeals court found in 2016—to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

As overt barriers to the franchise fell in the 1960s and millions of Black Southerners joined the electorate, overall political participation plummeted. In the 1970s and 1980s, barely above half of eligible voters participated in presidential elections, and only around 40 percent in midterm ...