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COUP WATCH: *The Right to Vote* Provides Deep Background For Unfolding History

by Paul H. Rosenberg Friday, Dec. 08, 2000 at 12:03 AM
rad@gte.net

The massive irregularities in Florida are entirely in keeping with the darker side of the history of voting rights in America. The most knowledgeable expert on such matters is Duke historian Alexander Keyssar, author of *The Right To Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States*, reviewed here.

COUP WATCH: The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States COUP WATCH: The Right to Vote Provides Deep Background For Unfolding History In Florida

By Paul Rosenberg

Book Review:
      The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States
            By Alexander Keyssar / Basic Books
            467 pages; .00

The United States has abysmally low voter turnout, yet we still cherish a public mythology that America is the "Land of Democracy," superior to all others in every significant way. This includes the assumption that Americans have long enjoyed something close to universal suffrage. We know this wasn't true in the pre-civil rights era South, but that's usually regarded as a regional anomaly and is readily shrugged off. If we haven't always been perfect, at least we've always striven for perfection--so goes the myth.

Or at least so went the myth before November 7. But historians have long known otherwise. Most notoriously, blacks gained the right to vote after the Civil War, only to lose it almost completely in the deep South under Jim Crow, but there are numerous less-dramatic reversals. The massive irregularities in Florida are entirely in keeping with the darker side of the history of voting rights in America. The most knowledgeable expert on such matters is Duke historian Alexander Keyssar, author of The Right To Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. He's been widely interviewed by the more saavy members of the media over the past several weeks, but no interview can hope to do justice to the rich complexity of the story his book has to tell.

Keyssar does much more than simply collect these various reversals and advances together into a single book--though it's been over 50 years since anyone even attempted that much. Rather, he develops a broad-based, realistic picture of the various historical forces working for or against the expansion of democracy, which in turn makes sense of an otherwise bewildering array of advances and retreats. The result is a marvelously coherent, richly detailed history of a most hard-won right. America certainly was the first modern democracy, but being first did not exempt us from the kinds of historical struggles that plagued other countries in expanding the right of self-government.

Without oversimplifying, Keyssar identifies four different periods in our history when distinctive dynamics tended to prevail. Immigration, urbanization, industrialization and class conflict were the great engines driving these changes. The first period of expanding the electorate lasted until around 1850. Then mass immigration and the specter of a European-style working class triggered a period of upper- and middle-class hostility to democracy in which a variety of measures (such as registration laws and residency requirements) contracted the electorate until WWI. The actions and rationales that predominated during this period are the ones most vividly brought to mind by Florida's myriad irregularities and tortured reasoning used to keep them from being rectified. A third, static period of mostly minor tinkering lasted until the 1960s, when the impetus of the civil rights movement helped do away with most other obstacles as well. The two highest-profile struggles for voting rights--that of women and blacks--generally don't fit neatly into these periods. Instead, the different period dynamics explain a great deal about the obstacles those movements struggled against and the forces favoring them.

This history is sprinkled with surprising details, such as 19th century frontier states that allowed alien settlers to vote, states that allowed women to vote in school board elections, and the nearly-universal loss of voting rights by free blacks between 1790 and 1850, when voting rights for whites were expanding. Even more revealing is the harsh light the factual record throws on spurious ideals used to restrict voting rights. Residency and registration laws, invariably proposed in the name of good government always managed to have a sharp class and ethnic bias in keeping people from the polls, despite having an appearance of formal nuetrality. But just in case they might actually be too nuetral, states often passed such laws limited exclusively to major cities populated by immigrant workers.

Equally telling is the recurrence of anti-democratic ideas, raised to the level of high principle whenever too many of the "wrong sort" start to think that the "self" in "self-government" includes them. Particular favorites were the notion that voting is a privilege or a trust, not a right, and a cluster of sometimes contradictory rationales surrounding property or wealth restrictions. Although such battles seem safely past, the yawning chasm between our mythic ideal and our real history is a potent reminder against glib self-congratulation, particularly when so few normally see this right as the precious prize The Right to Vote shows it to be.

If you really want to understand what's happening in Florida, the way a bewildering array of lagalisms, august principles and allegedly nuetral standards are being hurriedly, yet carefully deployed to thwart the obvious will of the people, then the only way to really understand it all is to read this book. If you do, you won't be surprised by Antonin Scalia remarking that there is no right to vote. You won't be shocked by the Supreme Court warning the Florida Supreme Court not to rely on the right to vote in Florida's constitution. You won't be caught off guard by seeing thousands of people arbitrarily and mistakenly removed from the voting roles. You won't bat an eye to hear about anything that's gone on in Florida this year, because you'll know there's nothing new in any of it. These are America's real traditional values in action when it comes to doing everything imaginable to undermine and deny the right to vote.

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