Jimmy Carter Tried to Make it Easier to Vote in 1977. The Right Stopped Him with the Same Arguments it’s Using TodayRoundup
tags: Republican Party, voting rights, Vote Suppression
Perlstein's new book is Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan; Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.
On March 22, 1977, newly-elected president Jimmy Carter sent a letter to Congress recommending a package of electoral reforms. The president was concerned that America ranked twenty-first in voter participation among the world’s democracies. He argued that the problem was not voter apathy but that “millions of Americans are prevented or discouraged from voting in every election by antiquated and overly restrictive voter registration laws”—a fact proven by the record rates of participation in 1976 in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota that let voters register on Election Day. Carter recommended same-day registration be adopted universally—tempering concerns that such measures might increase opportunities for fraud by increasing penalties against it to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
He asked for $25 million to help states comply, an expansion to congressional elections of the current system of federal matching funds for presidential campaigns, and closing a loophole in campaign finance law that advantaged rich contenders by allowing them to evade spending limits if they funded their own campaigns. He proposed revising the Hatch Act to allow federal employees “not in sensitive positions” the same rights of political participation as everyone else when not on the job. Most radically, he recommended a constitutional amendment to scrap the Electoral College, which, three times so far, had selected as president a candidate who had received fewer votes than his opponent.
It was among the most sweeping political reform proposals in U.S. history—and soon afterward, legislators from both parties stood together at a news briefing to endorse all or most of it. The bill for universal registration, which RNC chairman Brock called “a Republican concept,” was cosponsored by four Republicans. Senator Baker suggested going even further by making Election Day a national holiday, keeping polls open twenty-four hours, and instituting automatic registration. House minority leader John Rhodes, the conservative disciple of Barry Goldwater, predicted the proposal would pass “in substantially the same form with a lot of Republican support, including my own.”
More democracy: who could object?
The answer was: the New Right, which took their lessons about “electoral reform” from legends of Kennedy beating Nixon via votes received from the cemeteries of Chicago.
The next issue of Human Events, a conservative newspaper, was bannered, “ELECTION ‘REFORM’ PACKAGE: EUTHANASIA FOR THE GOP.”
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