Wednesday, July 21, 2021 | 2 a.m.
The story of voting rights in the United States looks less like a graph of exponential growth and more like a sine wave; there are highs and lows, peaks and plateaus.
President Joe Biden captured this reality in his address last week at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he spoke on the gathering threat to our democracy from the Republican Party’s twin efforts to suppress rival constituencies and seize control of state voting apparatuses.
“There is an unfolding assault taking place in America today,” Biden said. “An attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections, an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are — who we are as Americans.”
Biden is right. Americans today are witness to a ferocious attack on voting rights and majority rule. And as he points out, it is as focused on “who gets to count the vote” as it is on “who gets to vote.”
Biden is also right to say, as he did throughout the speech, that these attacks are “not unprecedented.” He points to Jim Crow and the “poll taxes and literacy tests and the Ku Klux Klan campaigns of violence and terror that lasted into the ’50s and ’60s.”
For obvious reasons, Jim Crow takes center stage in these discussions. But we should remember that it was part of a wave of suffrage restrictions aimed at working-class groups across the country: Black people in the South, Chinese Americans in the West and European immigrants in the North.
“The tide of democratic faith was at low ebb on all American shores after the Grant administration, and it would be a mistake to fix upon a reactionary temper in the South as a sectional peculiarity,” the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in “Origins of the New South, 1877—1913.”
For as much as Jim Crow dominates our collective memory of voting restrictions, it is the attack on suffrage in the North in those last decades of the 19th century that might actually be more relevant to our present situation.
The current assault on voting is a backlash, in part, to the greater access that marked the 2020 presidential election. More mail-in and greater early voting helped push turnout to modern highs. In the same way, the turn against universal manhood suffrage came after its expansion in the wake of the Civil War.
A growing number of voters were foreign-born, the result of mass immigration and the rapid growth of an immigrant working class in the industrial centers of the North. “Between 1865 and World War I,” writes historian Alexander Keyssar in “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States,” “nearly 25 million immigrants journeyed to the United States, accounting for a large proportion of the nation’s World War I population of roughly 100 million.”
The vast majority arrived without property or the means to acquire it. Some were the Irish and Germans of previous waves of immigration, but many more were eastern and southern Europeans, with alien languages, exotic customs and unfamiliar faiths.
“By 1910,” notes Keyssar, “most urban residents were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and the nation’s huge working class was predominantly foreign-born, native-born of foreign parents, or Black.”
To Americans of older stock, this was a disaster in waiting. And it fueled, among them, a backlash to the democratic expansion that followed the Civil War.
“A New England village of the olden time — that is to say, of some forty years ago — would have been safely and well governed by the votes of every man in it,” Francis Parkman, a prominent historian and a member in good standing of the Boston elite, wrote in an 1878 essay called “The Failure of Universal Suffrage.”
Parkman went on:
but, now that the village has grown into a populous city, with its factories and workshops, its acres of tenement-houses, and thousands and ten thousands of restless workmen, foreigners for the most part, to whom liberty means license and politics means plunder, to whom the public good is nothing and their own most trivial interests everything, who love the country for what they can get out of it, and whose ears are open to the promptings of every rascally agitator, the case is completely changed, and universal suffrage becomes a questionable blessing.
In “The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910,” the historian J. Morgan Kousser takes note of William L. Scruggs, a turn-of-the-century scholar and diplomat who gave a similarly colorful assessment of universal suffrage in an 1884 article, “Restriction of the Suffrage”:
The idea of unqualified or “tramp” suffrage, like communism, with which it is closely allied, seems to be of modern origin; and, like that and kindred isms, it usually finds advocates and apologists in the ranks of the discontented, improvident, ignorant, vicious, depraved, and dangerous classes of society. It is not indigenous to the soil of the United States. It originated in the slums of European cities, and, like the viper in the fable, has been nurtured into formidable activity in this country by misdirected kindness.
Beyond their presumed immorality and vice, the problem with new immigrant voters — from the perspective of these elites — was that they undermined so-called good government. “There is not the slightest doubt in my own mind that our prodigality with the suffrage has been the chief source of the corruption of our elections,” wrote the Progressive-era political scientist John W. Burgess in an 1895 article called “The Ideal of the American Commonwealth.”
This claim, that Black and immigrant voters were venal and corrupt — that they voted either illegally or irresponsibly — was common.
Charges of corruption and naturalization fraud were repeated endlessly: electoral outcomes were twisted by “naturalization mills” that, with the aid of “professional perjurers and political manipulators,” transformed thousands of immigrants into citizens in the weeks before elections.
Out of this furious attack on universal male suffrage (and also, in other corners, the rising call for women’s suffrage) came a host of efforts to purify the electorate, spearheaded by Progressive reformers in both parties. Lawmakers in Massachusetts passed “pauper exclusions” that disqualified from voting any men who received public relief on the day of the election. Republican lawmakers in New Jersey, targeting immigrant-dominated urban political machines in the state, required naturalized citizens to show naturalization documents to election officials before voting, intentionally burdening immigrants who did not have their papers or could not find them.
Lawmakers in Connecticut endorsed an English literacy requirement, and California voters amended their state constitution to disenfranchise any person “who shall not be able to read the Constitution in the English language and write his name,” a move meant to keep Chinese and Mexican Americans from the ballot box. The introduction of the secret ballot and the polling booth made voting less communal and put an additional premium on literacy — if you couldn’t read the ballot, and if no one was allowed to assist, then how were you supposed to make a choice?
If suffrage restriction in the South was a blunt weapon meant to cleave entire communities from the body politic, then suffrage restriction in the North was a twisting maze of obstacles meant to block anyone without the means or education to overcome them.
There were opponents of this effort to shrink democracy. They lost. Voter turnout crashed in the first decades of the 20th century. Just 48.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 1924 presidential election, an all-time low. “There were fewer Republicans in the South because of Jim Crow voter suppression, and fewer Democrats in the North because of the active discouragement of working-class urban immigrant voters,” the historian Jon Grinspan notes in “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915.” “The efforts of fifty years of restrainers had succeeded. A new political culture had been born: one that had been cleaned and calmed, stifled and squelched.”
It would take decades, and an epochal movement for civil rights, before the United States even came close to the democratic highs it reached in the years after Appomattox.
With all of that in mind, let’s return to Biden’s speech.
There was an urgency in what the president said in defense of voting rights, a sense that now is the only time left to act. “Look how close it came,” he said in reference to the attack Jan. 6 on Congress and the effort to overturn the election. “We’re going to face another test in 2022: a new wave of unprecedented voter suppression, and raw and sustained election subversion. We have to prepare now.”
Right now, of course, there is no path to passage for a voting bill that could address the challenges ahead. Not every Democrat feels the same sense of urgency as the president and key Democrats aren’t willing to change the rules of the Senate in order to send a bill to Biden’s desk.
It is possible that this is the right call, that there are other ways to block this assault on the franchise, and that the attack on free and fair elections will stay confined to Republican-controlled states — meaning Democrats would need only a strategy of containment and not a plan to roll back the assault. But as we’ve seen, there is a certain momentum to political life and no guarantee of a stable equilibrium. The assault on voting might stay behind a partisan border or it might not.
In other words, to borrow a turn of phrase from Abraham Lincoln on the question of democracy, this government will either become all of one thing or all of the other.
Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times. This column originally appeared here.