With mail-in voting becoming such an important political issue today, it is worth the time to examine similar issues in history. I have written on this before, but with the blocking of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, it is worth reexamining. The debate is between protecting voting, not from just fraud but from corruption, and allowing all people more access to voting. Then add to the debate the subtext of race and discrimination. This is a difficult dispute, yet, historically speaking, it is not a new one. The last major shift in the voting process had a similar debate between corruption and discrimination.
I have shared this before, but you can never share the Constitution too much. Article I. Section 4 reads, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” In other words, voting practices are controlled by the states and different states can have various practices. This is important to remember as we debate a law about national voting rights. Various amendments have revised the Constitution and have limited the state’s power, but all of these are about who cannot be excluded. None say that all must be included. Right now, you cannot deny the vote to anyone based on race, color, sex, or age. Nothing in the Constitution says you cannot deny voting for other reasons. An I.D. requirement does not go against any of these restrictions, hence why the Democrats are trying to pass a new law. They believe the restrictive voting rules inexplicitly curbs minority voters. This is the same argument made against reformers in the late 1800s.
The progressive movement that grew in America towards of the end of the Nineteenth Century revolved around the idea that Government could make a positive change in people’s lives. The movement was dominated by native WASPS who saw the growth of big business and their influence on Government as corruptive and wanted to take some power back. They saw that reform was going to happen whether they wanted it or not and so chose to lead the reforms themselves instead of leaving it to the masses. This way they could stop any radical reforms and make change more conservatively.
One of the most consequential reforms they championed was a secret ballot. Progressives believed that the masses were being treated as pawns in the political struggle. By this time all men were allowed to vote. However, with an open ballot there was nothing to stop employers from pressing employees to vote a certain way. For many of the poor, but especially immigrants, they were under pressure from political machines to vote for their candidates. When immigrants arrived in America, they were met on the docks by the political machines who set them up with lodging and jobs. It was the machines that took care of most of their needs. However, they were expected to vote how they were told.
In early America, ballots were not provided; you were expected to bring your own. You could make your own ballot, but a popular way to vote was to take an already filled out ballot provided by your political party, not unlike the sample ballots found at some polling stations today. Usually, these ballots were color coded so that foreign speakers or illiterate voters could make sure they voted for the correct party. However, color-coded ballots also made it easy for political bosses to make sure you voted for the correct person.
I am guessing that most reading this probably are thinking that going to a secret ballot was the right thing to do, as it actually increased democracy for the masses. While it allowed for them to vote their own conscience, however, these reformers came under attack as being racists and xenophobic. The problem was that now, to make sure ballots were not compromised, they were provided at the ballot box instead of voters being allowed to bring their own. Ballots now had to be filled out at the polling booth. The issue was that now foreign speakers and illiterates, who accounted for a higher percentage among minority populations, had to fill out a ballot without help. This led to a cry of racism.
Notice that the progressive reforms were not taking on an illegal issue with the secret ballot. It was not illegal for a political machine to give an immigrant a filled-out ballot; they claimed they were just assisting a non-English speaker. This has similarities with today as there are no calls to stop illegal actions. Democrats want to see restrictions removed for in-person voting and allowing more mail-in voting, giving those who can’t make it to the polls a chance to vote. Republicans want to stop illegal fraud, but there not many examples of actual fraud being committed. For many on the right, it is not just fraud, but corruption they want to stop.
Democrats say that political organizers who go door-to-door to help people vote by mail are expanding Democracy, while Republicans, though not using the same words, are seeing mail-in voting the same as political machines distributing filled-in ballots. In both cases is not about illegal voting but voting integrity.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.