Jonathan Zimmerman: Voting 'Reform' Across the Ages

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).

Once upon a time, American elections were rife with corruption. Party bosses bought votes with strong drink and cold cash, or stuffed ballot boxes with bogus names. Then along came the good-government reformers who cleaned up our democracy with new election laws and regulations.

That's the story we all learned in high school. And it's true, up to a point. But it leaves out a crucial fact: Those measures also sought to bar certain people from the polls. The goal of election reform wasn't simply a clean vote; it was also to keep out the "wrong" kind of voter.

Pennsylvania's voter-ID law, which is being challenged in state court, follows this pattern. On its face, it seems neutral and unimpeachable: Who could object to safeguards against fraud? But in practice, as opponents told the court last week, it would make it harder for poor people and minorities to vote....

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