Democratic Experiment

Before the 2000 election, Americans believed that the right to vote was a cardinal principle across the political spectrum. Even after the 2000 election, many still assumed that the vote suppression and botched voter counts in Florida were an aberration. Election 2004's enduring significance may well lie less in the choice of a president than in the belated recognition of how far short of this principle our democracy falls.

The contested history of voting throughout much of our nation has involved deeply intertwined narratives of class, race and morality. Those who want to make our democracy a model for the world would do well to attend more to these narratives.

Standard US history texts portray a past governed by steady political progress. Long before working-class movements to broaden the suffrage prodded European nations, the US had already extended voting rights to all white males. African Americans, Native Americans, and women had to fight for these rights, but they were folded into a roaring democracy that fully accepted the principle of universal voting.

In a work published just after the 2000 election, Duke University historian Alexander Keyssar effectively challenged this perspective. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States makes it hard to believe that the tortuous voting technology, convoluted registration procedures, and long lines to vote faced by poor and minority communities in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere are entirely accidental.

From its inception, American democracy has been torn by competing conceptions of political rights. One school holds voting to be a privilege accorded only to those whose education and or wealth renders them fit and sufficiently independent to make sound political judgments. The opposing view holds that voting is a universal human right and that any sentient person can understand his or her interests well enough to vote.

The latter perspective is more salient in our celebratory histories and media self-portrayals. But part of the genius of Keyssar is to show the many sub rosa incursions of the aristocratic concept of democracy.

No story is more telling than Keyssar's account of Reconstruction. An original and broader version of the 15th amendment specified that political rights could be denied neither by reason of race nor even because of "property, education, or creed." That more sweeping version failed because it was packaged with a proposal to abolish the Electoral College.

Even in the l930s, the US saw a sizable movement to disenfranchise welfare recipients on the grounds they would be puppets of Franklin Roosevelt. Throughout our history, concerns about the "quality" of voters have led to subtle means of limiting the vote.

Following the 2000 election, Congress set up a bipartisan 12-member commission to examine such topics as the advisability of proportional voting systems, instant runoff voting, and other election-related issues &emdash; including the electoral college; voter registration options like same-day registration and universal registration. Its accomplishments have fallen short of its mandate.

Political expediency often gets in the way of fundamental reform. Elected officials in some small states argue that they benefit from an electoral college that overweights small states. Yet whatever electoral benefits small states derive are at the cost of fostering opportunities for broadening popular participation in the formation of national majorities. Such participation is both right in itself and more likely to yield the national policies needed to enhance state and local development.

Groups hostile to truly universal voting have been active in many states. Their stated argument is the need to prevent fraud. Yet requiring voters to prove themselves honest while the burden of proof in other aspects of our criminal justice system lies on the state is a contradiction that must be challenged. If genuine concern with fraud is the real motivation, then it is incumbent on us to increase voting options. Both public authorities and the media should devote as much effort to exposing fraudulent efforts to deny qualified voters the right to vote as to efforts to register noncitizens. At least, voting should extend over several days and Election Day be made a national holiday.

One fortuitous result of the last two presidential elections is that it is hard to deny not only inequities in current practices but voting's checkered history.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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