Voting Rights Front and Center on Constitution Day

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Dr. Alexander Keyssar, an expert on American voting rights history, addressed this election season’s highly controversial voting policy changes during his Friday lecture at the Lang Performing Arts Center.

Keyssar, the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government professor and author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book The Right to Vote, focuses his research on the history of voter suppression and disenfranchisement in the United States. His speech, this year’s Gilbert Lecture in political science, fulfilled the federal requirement that each college invite a speaker to celebrate Constitution Day.

Calling the proposed new election laws “bogus” and “a quasi-challenge to universal suffrage in the 21st century,” Keyssar made clear his views on the issue. The policy changes, many of which restrict early voting and require that each voter present a photo ID at the polls, have “almost invariably been introduced by Republican legislatures with the premise of preventing voter fraud,” he said.

Democrats widely deride them as tools used to prevent minorities, the elderly, and people living in poverty—all populations that tend to support Democrats—from voting. Pennsylvania is one of many states embroiled in the issue; a challenge to its voter ID law is currently being heard in the state’s Supreme Court. Other states’ policy changes are no less contentious.

Asked about her interest in the issue, Anita Desai ’16 cited efforts by the Secretary of State in her home state of Ohio “to restrict early voting in countries that typically swing Democrat and extend early voting in areas that swing Republican.”

After explaining the current situation, Keyssar turned to his research on voter suppression and disenfranchisement, putting the issue in historical context. “There was never really a commitment in the United States toward universal suffrage,” he said.

He continued, “the [US] Constitution says almost nothing about voting rights,” which “creates a decentralized framework for voting and related issues” where states have the control to craft their electoral systems with little oversight from the federal government. Even the question of whether citizens have a role in choosing their president is left in the hands of state legislatures.

According to Keyssar, the antebellum and reconstruction-era shift in favor of voters’ rights expansion peaked at the ratification of 15th Amendment, which prevents states from denying citizens the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” “When voters’ rights expanded,” he said, “politicians were picturing a different society… one that was more equal, more homogenous.

Those in power, he suggested, did not foresee the industrialization of the north or the impact of large-scale immigration on American society. In addition, the fifteenth amendment expanded the franchise, changing the fundamental composition of America’s electorate, according to Keyssar. He said that late 19th century saw a political reaction to these shifts; today’s issues can similarly be seen as a political reaction.

Keyssar spoke of the circuitous path toward universal suffrage through the 1960s and the Voting Rights Act, and ended his speech by returning to today’s controversial legislation regarding early voting and voter ID laws.  He claims “[the pieces of legislation] are a response to the significant increase of enfranchisement of the population, the growing political power of African Americans, and the extremely large wave of immigration since 1980.”

In an interview after Keyssar’s speech, he described the history of voting rights as non-linear: “in our history people lost the right to vote as well as gained it, and thus the right to vote in some sense is fragile and always needs to be protected… voter suppression is as American as apple pie.”

For those with a further interest in this controversial and pressing issue, Keyssar says that he is always looking for students to research with him. He also suggests the Advancement Project, Common Cause and the Brennan Center for Justice as organizations through which students can work for a fair and democratic process.

Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College

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