“Democracy Distilled” — A Brief History of US Voting Rights

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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25 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    Is the road at its end?
    Should convicted felons ever be re-invested with the franchise at some point after completing their sentences?
    Should voter registration rules be nationalized and standardized?
    Will primary elections be opened to non-partisans?
    Should the franchise be made automatic upon attainment of age of majority?
    Will ballots include “none of the above” as an option? Should voting be compulsory?
    Will district and state lines count towards, or against, the idea of all votes bearing equal meaningful weight?
    For the record, I’m not suggesting that these are all necessarily good ideas. But I do think it’s worth noting that we aren’t necessarily done yet deciding who does and does not get to vote just because we’ve abandoned the ideas of race, sex, religion, and property restrictions on the franchise. It’s also worth noting that it’s still very much up for debate what we are going to vote on.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

      What are the arguments for why prisoners shouldn’t vote, again?

      It seems to me that if we trust prisoners enough to leave the prison and make new lives for themselves out in society, it’s freakin’ obvious that we should trust them enough to freakin’ *VOTE*… and, once I start thinking about that, I start wondering “why don’t we let prisoners vote, again?”Report

      • bookdragon in reply to Jaybird says:

        I think it’s a reasonable point that once someone has paid their debt to society they should be eligible to be a citizen again.Report

        • zic in reply to bookdragon says:

          Here in Maine (and one other state that I cannot recall at the moment) prisoners are allowed to vote. But we are also the most violent-crime free state (23 murders last year), and have lenient pot laws.

          In three states, this may rise to the level of racial discrimination.

          African American disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In
          three states – Florida (23 percent), Kentucky (22 percent), and Virginia (20
          percent) – more than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised.

          Source: Statewide Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in 2010, for The Sentencing Project, an advocacy and reform group.

          Over 6 million citizens do not have the right to vote; most for petty drug crimes and three-strikes-your-out sentencing laws.Report

      • Scott in reply to Jaybird says:

        Loss of voting rights is part of the historical concept of “civil death.”Report

      • MikeSchilling in reply to Jaybird says:

        What are the arguments for why prisoners shouldn’t vote, again?

        Many of them have dark skins and would thus be likely to vote the wrong way.Report

        • Scott in reply to MikeSchilling says:

          “Many of them have dark skins and would thus be likely to vote the wrong way.”

          First, felons have been disenfranchised in this country long before black folks could even vote. Furthermore the S.Ct., in the case of Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974) found a constitutional basis for disenfranchisement. Franky, I think keeping disenfranchisement is just based in its long history not anyone’s skin color, though, liberals want to believe everything is about race.Report

          • DBrown in reply to Scott says:

            What does your point have to do with the reason today? A wrong is a wrong no matter what old laws are used to justifry it. Before Blacks could vote they were also property and does that matter now? We learn as a people to grow and realize the wrongs we do. Hence the ‘right’ to vote has been given to woman and native Americans as we should have done in the first place: note that voting is a right as written in the constitution.

            Strange that this ‘right’ should have to be given. Today, we know that as a percentage, blacks are the largest group that suffer from this special removal process – one of the few times we still punish people after they leave prison.

            No, the law wasn’t written to target just Blacks from voting when first used but certainly today, that is exactly what it does – to prevent Blacks from voting. This is not a liberal issue (boy, does your bias show) but every one’s issue unless you don’t believe in our constitution – it does not say the right is removed just because you served time in prison – that was created to disenfranchise people and currently, that is especially true for Blacks.Report

            • Scott in reply to DBrown says:


              Mike posits the reason for felony for disenfranchisement as being based racism but offers no proof whatsoever that it really is the case today or has ever been the case. Felony disenfranchisement or the idea of loss of civil rights by criminals goes back to the foundations of our legal system in Greece and Rome. Let me also repeat again that the S.Ct. has found felony disenfranchisement to be constitutional. By the way did you know that in many states ex-felons can’t get professional licenses from the state? Again this is the idea of civil death as a result of ones crimes against society. This civil death is part of them paying their debt to society for their crimes.Report

              • LWA (Lib With Attitude) in reply to Scott says:

                So why is civic death a beneficial thing for the rest of us citizens?

                How is it beneficial for me to have a growing class of disenfranchised felons, who are unable to vote or hold professional licenses?Report

              • Scott in reply to LWA (Lib With Attitude) says:

                First, In many states felons can petition to have their ability to vote restored. Second, considering the fact that they have committed a felony already, it indicates to me that these folks weren’t productive members of society in the first place. So I fail to see what society would be missing by leaving these felons disenfranchised.Report

              • LWA (Lib With Attitude) in reply to Scott says:

                If that was a crack about Tom Delay or the Enron guys, you are talking to the wrong guy.
                But lets stipulate that most felons weren’t productive- meaning they didn’t generate a lot of economic activity. Fine.

                As to what we are missing- you don’t see a problem with having a growing segment of society that has absolutely no ownershipof, or representation in the government?

                Sounds like the road to serfdom to me.Report

              • Scott in reply to LWA (Lib With Attitude) says:

                My comment was not a crack about anyone. Instead of beating around the bush, you could plainly tell me without hyperbolic references to serfdom what you think we are missing without the felons.Report

          • Kim in reply to Scott says:

            Pardon, but when you’ve got more young black men headed to prison than to college, I’d say letting them vote might be a net good.
            Keeping a substantial portion of your racialized populace disenfranchised is likely to lead to Apartheid.
            Becuase who cares if we burn down their houses? They’re just felons. (oh, I’m sorry, bulldoze them to make another hirise with 90million dollar apartments inside).Report

      • George Turner in reply to Jaybird says:

        No, it’s that while in prison they get ensnared by Democrat politicians (often having one Illinois governor as a cellmate, another one across the cell-block, and one next door) creating massive conflicts of interest and compromising their independent judgement.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Should convicted felons ever be re-invested with the franchise at some point after completing their sentences?

      Yes; at least. (I think the US is a bit of an outlier on this; in Canada several years back we had the Supreme Court ruling that prisoners had the right to vote.)

      Should the franchise be made automatic upon attainment of age of majority?

      Ooh, good idea.Report

      • Angela in reply to KatherineMW says:

        I am also bothered by the fact that prisoners are counted for congressional representation, but are not allowed to vote for their “representative.” Given the skewed urban / rural voting patterns in Illinois, and the fact that prisons tend to be in far-off rural areas and prisoners from more populous urban areas, I believe the chance that a prisoner would actually be supporting the elected representative is quite small.Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Burt Likko says:

      To answer your questions,

      1. Yes
      2. Yes
      3. Parties decision
      4. Yes
      5. Yes and I can be talked into it.
      6. Against, as long as the Senate and Electoral College exists.Report

  2. James Hanley says:

    Elias, thanks for the video. I’m sticking it in my course BlackBoard site for my students’ benefit. Literally dozens of eager young students will benefit from you posting this (the dozens more of non-eager ones, well, god only knows if anything I do benefits them).Report

  3. Lyle says:

    Or to go back further should we bring back property qualifications for voting which John Adams wanted and thought the lack of would be the downfall of the republic. Note that the voter ID laws are in one sense a property qualification, all be it not a very stringent one. Note that in the old days property had to be free and clear to count.Report

  4. Scott says:

    Concerns raised over possible exploitation of mentally disabled voters


    Sad to see that Dems would do such a thing.Report