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July 03, 2013 11:59 AM Voting Rights: We’ve Been Here Before

By Ed Kilgore

In yesterday’s Day’s End post I briefly noted a new Ten Miles Square piece by Swarthmore College’s Rick Valelly, one of the country’s leading historians of the struggle for voting rights. You should read it if you want to understand the implications of Shelby County vs. Holder.

But Valelly makes a broad historical point that is the ultimate counter to those who say voting rights are an accomplished fact and that the country should just “move on:”

[H]istory tells us that we are at a crossroads in the evolution of American democracy. We had a Reconstruction, the First Reconstruction after the Civil War, and for a time it was a considerable success. We had African-American members of Congress, Louisiana briefly had a black governor, and the South Carolina Supreme Court had an associate justice who was African-American. The turnout rate among African-American adult male voters was about 80% in presidential elections. Despite conflict and terrible violence in a region recovering from the ravages of war, the First Reconstruction was a unique moment in the history of democracy.
In yet another unique moment in the history of democracy, we also had a great disenfranchisement. Black voting and office-holding were reduced literally to zero in the South by about 1900. It took until the 1960s to rebuild the strength of black politics and to force the country to enact the Voting Rights Act. American democracy required a Second Reconstruction, to use the coinage of the great American historian, C. Vann Woodward.
Nothing like the stunning reversal of democracy that happened by 1900 is in the cards today. But we must never forget that democratic revolutions can go backward. The Court’s conservative majority deliberately chose to forget. The rest of us must not make the same mistake.

That’s why we shouldn’t just say “enough’s enough” and leave voting rights in the hands of those with every incentive to limit them.

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.

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