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THE RIGHT TO VOTE The Contested History of Democracy in the United States By Alexander Keyssar; Basic Books: 467 pp., $30

November 26, 2000|MICHAEL KAZIN

One of the few salutary consequences of the incredible 2000 election may be a revival of serious political history. Spurred by the tension and drama of the grand national standoff, millions of Americans have learned something about the Electoral College, presidents named Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison and the arcana of recounts and ballot design. More important, they have found themselves debating how democratic our Constitution really is if it allows a candidate who loses the popular vote to win the White House. Suddenly, the way we choose our leaders seems almost as significant, even as exciting, as their personalities and sex lives.

Perhaps this rare fascination with the guts of the voting process will boost interest in Alexander Keyssar's scholarly masterpiece. "The Right to Vote" is easily the wisest and most comprehensive study of who was and is allowed to cast a ballot that has ever been written, and it is the first survey of its vast subject to be published since 1918.

Keyssar, who teaches history at Duke University, doesn't flinch from laying out the complexities of what must, by its nature, be a narrative of laws as much as political conflict. A historical appendix of suffrage statutes trails on for some 76 pages. But the professor is no pedant. With quiet precision, Keyssar takes on the myth that universal suffrage has always been the American way and utterly destroys that belief.

Well into the 20th century, many states denied the vote to women, African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans. What is more, during the long ordeal of industrialization, legislators who feared an unruly, uneducated proletariat enacted scores of state and local laws that barred from the polls "paupers," illiterates, short-term residents, parolees, newly naturalized citizens, anarchists and anyone without real property. Not until the 1960s did most of these exclusions get wiped off the books; only the ban on erstwhile felons survives in many places, a vestige of the traditional belief that, as Keyssar phrases it, "a voter ought to be a moral person."

The sheer number and ingenious variety of these class-based restrictions would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville, the celebrated observer of America's democratic mores. Indeed, when the Frenchman visited the United States in the 1830s, most male citizens (a category that excluded slaves and most other nonwhites) could vote regardless of the size of their income or holdings. Nowhere in Europe was the franchise so broad and widely exercised--and so unmindful of economic hierarchy.

Michael Kazin is coauthor (with Maurice Isserman) of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s" and teaches history at Georgetown University.

That began to change in the late 19th century. The rise of a factory system and the onrush of working-class immigrants made the United States the economic marvel of the world. But the political muscle of foreign-born laborers alarmed elite guardians of the old social order. E.L. Godkin, editor of The Nation, grumbled about the "large body of ignorant voters" who were allegedly corrupting city government; the esteemed historian Francis Parkman cringed that universal manhood suffrage "gives power to the communistic attack on property." A frontal assault on the suffrage of white men was politically impossible. But pro-business and rural legislators did concoct indirect methods for whittling way the rights of what one lawmaker sneeringly called "the vomit of the saloons." The courts, then bastions of conservatism, upheld most of the restrictions.

In extremis, a bit of force was also useful. Keyssar retells grisly tales of white vigilantes, with or without burning crosses, who terrorized blacks for demanding a say in how the South was governed. He also unearths stories that put flesh on all the Populist rhetoric about "big money" strangling politics. During a bitter Colorado coal strike in 1914, local Republicans redrew the precinct lines in Huerfano County to ensure that key districts would be situated on employer-owned land. Company police then stepped in with shotguns and billy clubs to stop union members from either registering or voting.

The unassailable conclusion of Keyssar's careful scholarship is that through most of our history, the right to vote was not the birthright of a majority of Americans. Only when massive social movements dovetailed with changes in the national mood did the lovely myth inch closer to reality. The most far-reaching of those changes, according to Keyssar, resulted from war. Time and again, excluded groups had to spill their blood or cheer the sacrifices of others in order to gain entry into the charmed circle of democracy.

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