Historical Thinking in the Present: More on Disenfranchisement, Then and Now

By James Grossman and Allen Mikaelian

We wanted to call readers’ attention to the following, from Jonathan Bernstein at the Washington Post blog, The Plum Line:

“Some textbook treatments of the franchise in U.S. history treat voting as a gradual but sustained series of victories, taking the nation from propertied white men in the eighteenth century to, eventually, the vote for all adults eighteen and up. That story is wrong.

“A more accurate version of the story is that plenty of people who once had the vote then lost it. The most dramatic example of this is African Americans in the post-reconstruction South. But there are plenty of other examples, especially if we properly understand things that make voting more difficult (such as the imposition of the separate step of voter registration in the late 19th and early 20th century) as a form of restricting the franchise. We may be in the process of undergoing a similar restriction right now; indeed, that’s probably one of the key things at stake in the next few election cycles.”

Not long ago, this blog highlighted the imperative of not only historical context but also historical thinking in discussions of recent efforts to change voting rules and regulations. We are glad to see Bernstein acknowledging the complexity of the history of voting, speaking broadly about the issue instead of restricting conversation to the most dramatic examples, and avoiding the “history repeating itself” trap.

As an aside, it’s possible to take issue with the claim that voter registration was, in and of itself, a move to exclude voters in the same category as the literacy test or the various obstacles currently being created. Alexander Keyssar’s discussion of registration laws in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, for example, notes that evidence does not allow for definitive conclusions here. But good historical scholarship has suggested the possibility that registration was primarily intended to limit the franchise, and Bernstein is right to offer it as an example.

As we argued on this blog, even if there is not a one-to-one correspondence between past and present efforts, our nation’s history of disenfranchisement cannot be ignored—however one might feel about the wisdom and justice of current efforts to introduce new procedures. We are pleased to see Bernstein using the work of historians in such a measured and responsible way, and we think historians can take this as an example of how to enter contemporary debates without compromising their core professional values.

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