Having spent years researching how similar policies affected democracy in the 19th century, I can say: America, please don’t go down this road again. We already know what happens if we do.
In fact, there are a few crucial lessons to learn from similar efforts in the past.
Perhaps even more menacingly familiar than the new state laws restricting voting are the efforts to reintroduce partisan poll watchers on Election Day. This is the new development that causes me the most concern, because the record is so clear about the harm of turning polling places into partisan battle-domes. Throughout most of the 1800s, partisan poll watchers, “challengers,” “shoulder hitters” and “bludgeon men” patrolled polling places, using intimidation, “knock downs” and “awlings” (literally stabbing voters with awls) to swing elections. Often, partisan poll watchers clashed with rivals from the other side, as in one municipal election in Baltimore in 1859, which left eight shot, four stabbed and two dozen beaten across the city. Americans grew used to post-election reports of what headlines called such “outrages at the polls.”
Enabling partisan poll-watchers inevitably draws similar activists from the other side, launching a spiraling arms race at elections. And as many of these laws are being introduced in battleground states, like Florida, Texas and Georgia, it’s not hard to imagine rival poll-watchers clashing on Election Day and making it impossible for ordinary voters to safely cast a ballot.
After a career studying the “dirty tricks” of the 19th century in the archives, I’m amazed to see them dreamt up again in the 21st. Of course, it’s not as if these latter-day suppressors are doing their historical research, they are merely falling back on the logic of partisanship, as were the Democrats and Republicans who introduced these ideas 150 years ago. As long as legislators value a win for their tribe over a win for the majority, they will continue to get dangerously creative on Election Day.
One of the strengths of American democracy is its continuity: we’ve operated under the same basic system of government for longer than nearly any other nation on earth. Which means we have a deep record of what reforms help — and what reforms harm — the cause of popular self-government. We’ve learned too much about voting rights and voter suppression over the centuries to blunder into some of our old, ugly missteps again today. By this point, we should know better.
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