The current debate over state legislation establishing barriers to voting – which generally involves raising the bar for documenting identity and residency – has stimulated considerable commentary from historians, most recently this “modest proposal” by David Blight. I suspect this has something to do with the combination of a compelling political history and a specific historical precedent.
The right to vote has been curtailed throughout American history, in the north, in the south, in the country, and in the city. Historians have debated whether voting regulation efforts have been motivated by partisan politics, class conflict, racism, or actual voter fraud. But those of us who have taught or published on these issues generally agree that historical framing matters. It helps us form relevant questions and consider meaningful contextual issues. This historical framing should matter to policymakers today as they consider further regulating the franchise amid allegations of voter fraud that as yet have a thin evidentiary base at best.
The current issue of Perspectives on History offers some thoughts about the complex relationship between voter suppression in the Jim Crow South and current legislative initiatives regarding voting and eligibility. Blight’s New York Times op-ed essay carries the context back even further, suggesting that we can learn much from Frederick Douglass’ experience of becoming a voter. For decades, Republicans and Democrats alike have invoked Douglass as a hero. Yet as Blight observes, Douglass established his eligibility to vote without valid identification. Indeed, his residence was itself illegal, given his legal status as the fugitive property of another man.
Admittedly polemical (not to mention partisan), Blight’s article reminds us once again that historians can bring considerable insight to contemporary affairs. The AHA encourages historians to put our expertise to work to engage public culture and then send us a link so we can share your observations with our colleagues.