By Warren E. Milteer Jr. / Special To The Washington Post
Across the country, from Texas to Florida, conservative lawmakers are working to make access to the ballot more difficult, enacting measures that reduce voting hours, limit opportunities for voter registration and purge the voting rolls. Rather than changing their messages or policy proposals to appeal to more voters, they have used their disproportionate power at the state level to create legislative districts and voting rules that almost guarantee them control of their state legislatures and congressional delegations.
Politicians’ attempts to remain in power by selectively culling or enlarging the electorate — in other words, by picking their voters instead of the voters picking their representatives — is nothing new in American politics. The fact that the Constitution permits state lawmakers to send a set number of representatives to Congress and an equal number of electors to the electoral college every four years, no matter how many of their citizens participate in each election, encourages such behavior while destroying confidence in democracy in the process.
While some historians have looked at the earliest decades of the United States under the Constitution as a moment of expanding political rights, especially for white men, a closer examination of political changes during the late 18th and early 19th centuries reveals a more complicated story. In fact, politicians trying to pick their voters both expanded and contracted voting access over time.
From the nation’s earliest days, two models of voting existed, one that discriminated — primarily based on race — and one that did not. Political leaders in some states entrenched discrimination based on race, class and gender in their state constitutions. For example, the Revolutionary-era constitutions of Georgia and South Carolina restricted voting to white men with property. The original constitutions of other states, however, created a broader electorate. In North Carolina and Maryland, free men — regardless of their race — could vote.
What drove these decisions? In some cases, political judgments. Some politicians had already decided that their political destinies were more secure in a state in which only propertied white men had access to the polls.
As the 18th century turned into the 19th, lawmakers had time to observe the electoral process and decide how to make it work to their benefit. By 1800, the nation had two substantial political parties, the Federalists under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and others, and the Republicans (or Democratic Republicans) led by Thomas Jefferson. Politicians in both parties sought ways to cement their power at the state and local levels through party platforms and partisan newspapers; as well as the reshaping of the electorate.
Voters of color became early targets of these efforts. Jeffersonian Republicans sought to expel free men of color from the polls in places where they could vote to enhance the party’s position in state governments. After seizing control of the Maryland legislature following years of Federalist rule, for example, Jeffersonian Republican lawmakers sought to exclude “free negroes and mulattoes” from the polls while calling for a liberalization in voting rights for white men. Jeffersonian Republicans saw free men of color as natural allies of their Federalist opponents and the mass of unpropertied white men as a voting bloc that would secure power for their party in Maryland and other parts of the region.
In 1803, the Jefferson Republicans stripped the vote from free men of color in Maryland. The Federalists did not disappear immediately from Maryland politics or the national government.
Yet more broadly, the Jeffersonian Republicans’ attempt to pick their own voters slowly began to pay dividends. In other parts of the country, including New York and Pennsylvania, the Jefferson Republicans argued that they were the true defenders of the rights of white men while depicting the Federalists as the party of free men of color. This strategy, along with their efforts to label the Federalists as unpatriotic because of their lack of support for the War of 1812, pushed the Federalists into obscurity.
By the 1820s, the United States could fairly be described as a one-party state. Even John Quincy Adams, the son of Federalist president John Adams, had joined the party of Jefferson, his father’s onetime political adversary.
Politicians’ efforts to pick their own voters continued into the 1830s as Jefferson’s old Republican Party split into the Democratic and Whig parties. Political leaders in states such as North Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania robbed free men of color of the vote while granting white men greater access to the polls.
In the 1835 state constitutional debates in North Carolina, convention delegates cited a host of reasons to limit voting to only white men. Some argued factitiously that free men of color were not citizens and were not intended by the delegates to the state’s Revolutionary Constitutional Convention to have the right to vote, even though the state’s first constitution had no race-based qualifications. Others argued that free men of color were part of a debased race of people. If the enslaved masses — who were people of color — had no business voting, something that most delegates could agree on, then no people of color should have the right to vote.
After significant debate, a slight majority of the delegates voted to disfranchise free men of color. While bigoted arguments about the capacity of free men of color to act as voters won the day, the reason delegates fought so forcefully to discredit and ultimately disfranchise free men of color was more complicated than pure racial animus.
After the 1835 convention, Del. Jesse Speight revealed that he had sided with disfranchisement because “nearly all” free men of color “voted against me.” Speight used white supremacy as a guise to weaken his political opponents and enhance his chance of reelection. He sought to choose his own voters instead of taking the chance that the preexisting block of voters might reject him.
After the Civil War, Republicans gained power in many parts of the South by linking the interests of formerly enslaved men and free men of color to those of forward-thinking white men. In response, conservative Democrats resorted to familiar tactics as they sought to regain political control in the South by choosing their own voters.
Using violence, manipulation and most importantly the law, they kept men of color from the polls and by default pushed their Republican opponents to the political margins of Southern society, especially after the end of Reconstruction. Upon gaining control, conservative Democrats passed laws to make voting more difficult or impossible for their political opponents.
By enacting policies that were race-neutral in their language but targeted primarily at formerly enslaved men and their descendants, such as felon voter restrictions, grandfather clauses, literacy tests and poll taxes, conservative Democrats disfranchised a key voting bloc in the Republican coalition. Once again, politicians had picked the voters.
This enabled conservative Southern Democrats to guarantee that members of their party would represent their states in the national government. Their dominance in the South made the conservatives an overwhelming majority of the party and forced more liberal and moderate members of the national Democratic Party to bend to their will.
Generations of attempts by politicians to pick their own voters has left the United States with an uncertain future. Millions of Americans are convinced that voting does not matter because the desires of the majority cannot overcome this system.
We will soon find out if the political will exists in Congress to secure voting rights for all American citizens of proper age or if the desire of politicians to pick their own voters will continue to dissuade some Americans that voting matters.
Warren E. Milteer Jr. is author of the forthcoming book, “Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South” (UNC Press) and assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.