Too Often, Politicians Pick Their VotersRoundup
tags: elections, political history, democracy, Gerrymandering, apportionment, Redistricting
Warren E. Milteer Jr. is author of the forthcoming book, Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South (UNC Press) and assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Across the country, from Texas to Florida, conservative lawmakers are working to make access to the ballot more difficult, enacting measures that reduce voting hours, limit opportunities for voter registration and purge the voting rolls. Rather than changing their messages or policy proposals to appeal to more voters, they have used their disproportionate power at the state level to create legislative districts and voting rules that almost guarantee them control of their state legislatures and congressional delegations.
Politicians’ attempts to remain in power by selectively culling or enlarging the electorate — in other words, by picking their voters instead of the voters picking their representatives — is nothing new in American politics. The fact that the Constitution permits state lawmakers to send a set number of representatives to Congress and an equal number of electors to the electoral college every four years, no matter how many of their citizens participate in each election, encourages such behavior while destroying confidence in democracy in the process.
While some historians have looked at the earliest decades of the United States under the Constitution as a moment of expanding political rights, especially for White men, a closer examination of political changes during the late 18th and early 19th centuries reveals a more complicated story. In fact, politicians trying to pick their voters both expanded and contracted voting access over time.
From the nation’s earliest days, two models of voting existed, one that discriminated — primarily based on race — and one that did not. Political leaders in some states entrenched discrimination based on race, class and gender in their state constitutions. For example, the Revolutionary-era constitutions of Georgia and South Carolina restricted voting to White men with property. The original constitutions of other states, however, created a broader electorate. In North Carolina and Maryland, free men — regardless of their race — could vote.
What drove these decisions? In some cases, political judgments. Some politicians had already decided that their political destinies were more secure in a state in which only propertied White men had access to the polls.
As the 18th century turned into the 19th, lawmakers had time to observe the electoral process and decide how to make it work to their benefit. By 1800, the nation had two substantial political parties, the Federalists under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and others, and the Republicans (or Democratic Republicans) led by Thomas Jefferson. Politicians in both parties sought ways to cement their power at the state and local levels through party platforms and partisan newspapers — as well as the reshaping of the electorate.