Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on improving the systems of democracy and justice. Learn more.
For those of us watching the presidential campaigns, wringing our hands, and wondering when politics got so crazy, Michael Waldman has some bad news: it has always been like this, and do not expect it to change. In his latest book, The Fight to Vote, Waldman takes readers down memory lane (one that most of us have forgotten, or never knew, or, if we remember, wish we could forget) to relive some of the quirkier milestones in politicians’ efforts to expand—or, as was and is still more often the case, restrict—voting rights.
In New Jersey, the only state where women were allowed to vote prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, men dressed up as women so that they could vote multiple times in the 1807 election. Naturally, the New Jersey legislature solved that problem by disenfranchising women later that year.
The vote was once limited solely to white male property owners. Waldman reminds readers that since the nation’s founding, every voting group outside that charmed circle has struggled to secure the franchise for themselves. Political parties often followed their own self-interests—not their moral compasses—when picking sides.
"In New Jersey, the only state where women were allowed to vote prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, men dressed up as women so that they could vote multiple times in the 1807 election. Naturally, the New Jersey legislature solved that problem by disenfranchising women later that year." — Andrew Geraghty
Waldman lays bare the shrewd political calculus that went into policymakers’ attempts to expand the franchise, such as the Fifteenth Amendment. Republicans pushed for its passage knowing it could give their candidates an edge if newly enfranchised blacks chose to support the party of Lincoln.
The current state of voting rights in America—with efforts to enact strict voter identification laws and to curb early voting and election-day registration in several states—is then hardly novel, and, according to Waldman, there is no reason for doom and gloom. African Americans, women, young people, and even white men who did not own property all faced efforts to keep them from the ballot box. This drive to expand voting rights is in fact the very story of American democracy, and, as a fretful John Adams said of new groups seeking the franchise, “there will be no end of it.”
Waldman has a fascinating story to tell, and he begins at the founding of the new nation, “a time when Americans could barely imagine the democracy we’ve become.” Which brings us, as he writes, “to today, and tomorrow.” The author is prudently optimistic:
Out of today’s fights to protect voting and campaign finance law, we’re starting to see innovative reforms. They rely on technology to address some of the most stubborn and long-standing gaps in our system. As history makes clear, changes do not come from judicial fine print or technical tweaks. Rather they start with a recognition that these issues—the core issues of American democracy—once again are properly the topic for deep, engaged, contentious, often partisan debate.
There has been progress—indeed, “no end of it.”
Geraghty is program analyst, U.S. Democracy and Special Opportunities Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York.