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Pulling the Curtain: Voting in America

Voters cast their ballot.

Voting rights. Photo courtesy of BackStory. PD.

Did Tuesday’s election revive questions about America’s voting system, voter turnout, and how they have changed over time? This week’s episode of BackStory with the American History Guys provides an interesting election debrief—delving deeper into questions that would otherwise be forgotten until 2016. “Pulling the Curtain: Voting in America” addresses questions about the Electoral College, voter fraud, undecided voters, election reform, and volunteerism—which paint a picture of the political atmosphere in various periods of American history.

The American History Guys (a.k.a. Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers and the Miller Center’s own Brian Balogh), and their guests, Alexander Keyssar, Mark Summers, and Jamie Raskin, start out their Election Day special with a look at a very different kind of political climate: one where politics was a loud, public affair in which “pass[ing] out the booze” was as important giving a Stump speech.

Recent Voter ID laws look particularly exceptional in the context of the history of non-citizen voting, as explained by Raskin, a Professor of Law at American University. According to Raskin, there is an “incredible buried history of white, male, property-owning, non-citizens voting. The supporting argument is a logical one: these non-citizens have a stake in society (especially at the local level), and voting is a mutually beneficial avenue toward assimilation. The practice continued up until World War I—when states began passing laws against alien suffrage.

Summers, History Professor at the University of Kentucky, explains that in the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century, the culture of elections defies a simple term like voter fraud. For one, voters were routinely paid between $2 and $10 to turn out. If you were Republican, this did not necessarily mean that Democrats could buy your vote; it meant that you might not show up vote unless incentivized by your own party. Summers goes on to talk about the threats of violence and intimidation rampant in post-reconstruction South, as well as the efforts of reformers to enfranchise black voters.

How does one explain the Electoral College? Professor Keyssar of Harvard University points out that the strongest sentiment against direct popular election of the President came from the South. It’s simple (and notorious) math. Because of the 3/5th’s compromise, the slave-holding southern states got a “bonus” in the Electoral College since their slaves were counted for population purposes, but not enfranchisement. Strangely enough, after the abolition of slavery, this advantage was enhanced—since former slaves were now counted as “5/5th’s” while subject to systematic and effect methods of voter suppression.

Listen to the full episode to learn more about the history of volunteerism and voter turnout throughout American history.

Date edited: 11/08/2012 (9:38AM)


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