Political Animal


July 05, 2012 5:17 PM Disenfranchisement Is Not a New Idea

By Ed Kilgore

At WaPo’s Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein makes a very important point about the “war on voting” that bears repeating:

Some textbook treatments of the franchise in U.S. history treat voting as a gradual but sustained series of victories, taking the nation from propertied white men in the eighteenth century to, eventually, the vote for all adults eighteen and up. That story is wrong.
A more accurate version of the story is that plenty of people who once had the vote then lost it. The most dramatic example of this is African Americans in the post-reconstruction South. But there are plenty of other examples, especially if we properly understand things that make voting more difficult (such as the imposition of the separate step of voter registration in the late 19th and early 20th century) as a form of restricting the franchise. We may be in the process of undergoing a similar restriction right now; indeed, that’s probably one of the key things at stake in the next few election cycles.

Aside from the eligibility to vote, roadblocks to voting have had a large and varying impact on actual ballot participation. It’s often forgotten that turnout rates are vastly lower than they once were in this country. The top five presidential elections in U.S. history in terms of turnout by the eligible voting age population were, in descending order, 1876, 1860, 1840, 1888 and 1892.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on July 05, 2012 5:38 PM:

    There's also the meme that there's no real difference between the parties and candidates.

    And then, the never ending, screaming, whining, and tearing at the hair and garments, when R's lose the boasting, bullying, strutting, and talk about mandates when they win, and the constant bickering and obstruction when D's are in charge, giving them no mandate - to the point of undermining the nation.

    And that forces the D's to counter-attack the bullsh*t.

    So, it looks to the people that both side are blaming one another, and that leads them to believe the Conservative meme that 'both sides do it.'

    All of that turns people off from the voting process.

    Why get involved with these jejune politicians and their endless bickering, and go out and vote, if there's no real difference between them (as they're always being told)?

  • Tom O'Neill on July 05, 2012 7:04 PM:

    The elections you cite as having the highest national turnout all took place when the franchise was restricted almost entirely to white men, and, in some cases, propertied white men. Absent penalties for not voting (a la Australia) it is likely that the larger the pool of those eligible to vote the smaller the turnout will be, other things being equal.

  • David in NY on July 05, 2012 9:21 PM:

    Not sure this data necessarily supports your conclusion Mr. O'Neill. Two big enfranchisements, abolishing religious limitations and property qualifications, had largely occurred before 1840, and wholly before 1860.
    The next big bump, enfranchisement of blacks, occurred next, and in 1876, the result of these extensions of in the franchise produced the highest turnout ever. The logical conclusion is that extending the franchise to that point increased turnout.

    Of course, counter-trends began. In the 1850's, Massachusetts passed the first literacy requirement to keep people named O'Neill from voting. And then blacks were out for 100 years. So that kind of thing put a dent in the turnout.

    I don't think your conclusion follows.

  • Alex Y on July 06, 2012 2:31 AM:

    Voting is a privilege, not a right. We *should* restrict the franchise: GED or equivalent, plus military service.

  • Joshua Scumten on July 06, 2012 3:44 AM:

    The main political opponents always reach the point when they blame each other's ideas and policy lines- and during this war a blood is being shedded. People love to se blood but they also appraciate the dignity of the political figures. Moving to France

  • EnnisB on July 06, 2012 4:44 AM:

    Alex Y

    No taxation without representation bro and no military service.

  • Blue Girl on July 06, 2012 8:23 AM:

    Voting is a privilege, not a right. We *should* restrict the franchise: GED or equivalent, plus military service.

    Starship Troopers was a prescient warning, not an ops manual. Dumbass.

  • Doug on July 06, 2012 9:14 PM:

    I hate to disagree with Blue Girl, but...
    In the novel "Starship Troopers", ANY public service, including teaching, public health, just serving in some governmental bureau, was the requirement; NOT just military service. I've never seen the movie and if it's so badly distorted what Heinlein wrote, that's probably just as well.
    If I understand correctly, the idea came from the ancient Greek city-states which required that all adult males participate in government or face face fines AND the military unless physically unable. Heinlein said that he wrote the story from a military aspect because that's what he was most familiar with.
    Still, it's definitely NOT something I'd support...

  • Alex Y on July 07, 2012 5:09 AM:

    "No taxation without representation bro and no military service."

    Who said anything about not being represented? You would still have representation in Congress and the State legislature, you just wouldn't be able to contribute to the selection of your representation until you'd contributed to society in some more meaningful way than simply continuing to draw breath until you reached your 18th birthday.

    "Still, it's definitely NOT something I'd support..."

    Right. Because you're a spoiled, entitled liberal whose idea of contributing to society is buying a pink bucket of KFC chicken "for the cure."

    Lest it be forgotten, this proposal was floated by Democratic politician Mickey Kaus in the 1990s. It's also worth mentioning that some form of service is absolutely mandatory in the European social democracies that you liberals love so much.

    I don't mind the idea of being able to substitute, say, two years of civil service for one year of military service. But our culture of spoiled brats (such as yourself) who demand entitlements from society, while offering absolutely nothing back, has bankrupted our great nation.

    It is time for a change. And our political culture will never change as long as politicians are accountable to everyone with a pulse, as opposed to only those citizens who have demonstrated their worth and their commitment to the United States.