Editor’s Note: Jon Grinspan is curator of political history at the National Museum of American History, and the author of “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915.” The views expressed here are his. View more opinion on CNN.
As a curator of political history at the Smithsonian, I’ve spent years studying the bad old days of American politics. Leafing through contested election trial transcripts, constable’s reports and boxes of fraudulent ballots, I’ve studied the voter suppression and violence that was once a common feature of our democracy in the 19th century. It always seemed distant to me, with a consoling “it used to be worse” appeal. But recently, this past has been reanimated by new, partisan state laws designed to make it harder to vote.
Having spent years researching how similar policies affected democracy in the 19th century, I can say: America, please don’t go down this road again. We already know what happens if we do.
In fact, there are a few crucial lessons to learn from similar efforts in the past.
The first lesson is that tightening access to the vote hurts democracy for everyone. History shows that individual state laws can greatly encourage, or discourage, popular political participation nationwide, fundamentally altering American political culture.
Consider the arc of American democracy from the 1820s to the 1920s. Beginning in the 1820s, most states stopped requiring that White males own property to vote, opening voting access to working class and younger voters. Turnouts shot up from roughly 25% of eligible voters in the 1820s, to over 80% in 1840, 1860 and 1876.
After the Civil War, African-American men won the right to vote, joining in popular elections to elect former slaves as sheriffs, congressmen and governors. Though women’s suffrage was still far off, many Americans believed that they lived in a progressive era of expanding “pure democracy,” with old racial and class hierarchies and voting restrictions being swept away by a populist tide.
But this wave crested around the centennial in 1876, and for the next 50 years, so-called “reformers” worked to restrict access again. In the South, White supremacists introduced new laws designed to bring about what one White Virginia legislator called, “the elimination of the negro from the politics of this state.” New state constitutions kept most Black men from voting; the number of African American voters in Louisiana, for instance, crashed from 130,000 in 1896 to just 1,342 by 1904. Lynchings often enforced this new disenfranchisement with a chilling message to Black would-be voters and activists.
In those same years, faith in democracy also plummeted across the nation. Although never experiencing anything like the brutality of Southern politics, after the contentious presidential election of 1876 many Northern elites began to denounce majority rule in politics. In the Gilded Age, well-to-do Americans looked out at the big, populist democracy with mass participation by working class and immigrant voters, and began to mutter about the “public pest” of popular voting rights. Northern states passed their own laws designed with what one observer at the time termed the “secret cause” of discouraging poorer voters, and well-connected politicians noted a “reaction against democracy” in elite circles.
Turnout crumbled. Between 1896 and 1924, participation plunged from 80% back to less than 50%, and remained mediocre for much of the next century. African-Americans and working class whites – the populations promised the most by the “pure democracy” optimism after the Civil War – were hit the hardest. The lesson is clear – a culture of participation can be built, as between 1820 and 1876, and it can also be destroyed, as over the next 50 years.
Another clear lesson from the 19th century is that election losers’ claims of fraud are an easy weapon to reduce turnout. While there is no credible evidence of significant fraud in American elections today, there certainly was plenty back in the 1800s. But what is most striking is how similar the unsubstantiated claims of fraud made by White Southern Democrats made against new Black voters after the Civil War – or lodged by losing parties in the North – sound to what we hear today. One senator who complained, in 1874, that conspiracy theorists treated every elected official “as if he were a vulgar trickster,” sounds distressingly like the Texas election official who worried last month about “the default assumption that county election officials are bad actors.”
Perhaps even more menacingly familiar than the new state laws restricting voting are the efforts to reintroduce partisan poll watchers on Election Day. This is the new development that causes me the most concern, because the record is so clear about the harm of turning polling places into partisan battle-domes. Throughout most of the 1800s, partisan poll watchers, “challengers,” “shoulder hitters” and “bludgeon men” patrolled polling places, using intimidation, “knock downs” and “awlings” (literally stabbing voters with awls) to swing elections. Often, partisan poll watchers clashed with rivals from the other side, as in one municipal election in Baltimore in 1859, which left eight shot, four stabbed and two dozen beaten across the city. Americans grew used to post-election reports of what headlines called such “outrages at the polls.”
Enabling partisan poll-watchers inevitably draws similar activists from the other side, launching a spiraling arms race at elections. And as many of these laws are being introduced in battleground states, like Florida, Texas and Georgia, it’s not hard to imagine rival poll-watchers clashing on Election Day and making it impossible for ordinary voters to safely cast a ballot.
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After a career studying the “dirty tricks” of the 19th century in the archives, I’m amazed to see them dreamt up again in the 21st. Of course, it’s not as if these latter-day suppressors are doing their historical research, they are merely falling back on the logic of partisanship, as were the Democrats and Republicans who introduced these ideas 150 years ago. As long as legislators value a win for their tribe over a win for the majority, they will continue to get dangerously creative on Election Day.
One of the strengths of American democracy is its continuity: we’ve operated under the same basic system of government for longer than nearly any other nation on earth. Which means we have a deep record of what reforms help – and what reforms harm – the cause of popular self-government. We’ve learned too much about voting rights and voter suppression over the centuries to blunder into some of our old, ugly missteps again today. By this point, we should know better.