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Opinion: The Right to Vote Is Never Safe

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Before this “registration summer,” just 0.5 percent of black men were registered. By the end of 1867, 80.5 percent were. It was the most successful registration drive in American history. That fall, hundreds of thousands of former slaves voted in state elections, creating new constitutions that would lead to greater rights.

These new voters were not enough to split the old order. Although blacks elected congressmen and senators, sheriffs and judges, brutal violence followed. The year after those first votes, in Louisiana alone 1,081 people, mostly black, were killed during political conflicts, according to a congressional study. By the end of the century a tide of revised state constitutions, enforced with shotguns and bullwhips, made voting by blacks all but impossible.

This was part of a larger movement to roll back voting rights in the late 19th century. In the North, reformers declared war on what they called widespread voter fraud, and aimed their efforts at the white working class. While they could not resort to shotguns to suppress poorer white men’s votes, they found that by making votes just hard enough to cast, they could retake control of elections. By introducing voter registration, secret ballots and voting machines, these groups were able to discourage less-educated men from participating. Working-class voting, and turnout over all, plummeted.

Paradoxically, this was the same era in which women’s suffrage succeeded. The greatest expansion of the right to vote coincided with the greatest crash in the use of that right. This odd moment crystallizes a truth about voting: Access matters at least as much as legal right.

Law and access converged more in the second half of the 20th century. The Voting Rights Act allowed the federal government to work to close the gap between theoretical rights and real participation for black Southerners. Voting by women and later 18- to 21-year-olds meant that a larger proportion of the population could participate. The Cold War abroad, and low levels of partisanship at home, gave Americans reason to tell themselves an easy fable about a stable, broadening democracy.

But this period was unusual, and the longer-term trend of volatile voting rights has re-emerged in the 21st century. Americans are again debating the right to vote, and focusing on state voting laws, in ways we haven’t for nearly a century.

This history offers several lessons. For one, we’ve been here before, and it was worse: It is almost insulting to compare recent state voter ID laws with the experiences of black men who faced lynching while trying to vote.

This doesn’t mean there are no dangerous parallels. “It’s no big deal,” the head of President Trump’s Voter Integrity Commission said. “Nobody’s being disenfranchised.” But historically, official, technical disenfranchisement has not always been the issue — few were disenfranchised in the North in the late 19th century, even as millions of poorer white men found too many new hurdles to voting, and turnout dropped by 40 percent.

The story of a small group of former slaves’ first votes, in 1867, offers a final wrinkle. Among them were the survivors of the Wanderer, one of the last slave ships to arrive from Africa, in 1858. These men went from living in what is now Angola to American slavery to American democracy in under a decade. Many lost their votes within the following years. If anyone’s story proves that there is no natural arc of justice in the universe, it’s theirs.

But that lack of guaranteed progress is motivating. It means that we cannot sit back, confident that our institutions are protected by some immutable law. People have lost rights that they once thought secure and have won those they never thought possible. We must be proud of our first votes — and mindful of our last.

Correction: November 4, 2017

An earlier version of the caption for the cartoon accompanying this essay misidentified the president pictured. He is Andrew Johnson, not Andrew Jackson.

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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