An Interview with Historian Alex Keyssar

Alexander KeyssarAlexander Keyssar is the Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. An historian by training, he has specialized in the examination of issues that have contemporary policy implications. His 1986 book, Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts, was awarded three scholarly prizes. His most recent book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000), received the Eugene Genovese Prize from The Historical Society, given bi-annually for the best book in U.S. history published in the preceding two years, and the Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association for the best English-language book on American history and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Francis Parkman Prize. Keyssar will be a panelist at the Foundation’s free public symposium, “Retracing the Struggle: The Legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” on Saturday, October 29 at Boston College. He was interviewed by MFH Executive Director David Tebaldi by email.

David Tebaldi: In his Foreword to Lani Guinier’s book The Tyranny of the Majority, Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter says, “Although often disdained by cynics, the right to vote is the most important and dramatic emblem of democratic citizenship. The social history of America could be written as the saga of a slowly expanding franchise: to the nonpropertied, to the freed slaves, to women, to those old enough to fight. When we vote . . . [w]e are taking part in a serious and personally significant ritual. Whether or not our side wins, the ritual affirms our membership in America. The simple act of voting is the ground upon which the edifice of elective government rests ultimately.” Do you agree with this statement?

Alex Keyssar: I certainly agree that voting is fundamental to our political system and that the act of voting can be a significant and affirming ritual. The right to vote is indeed an emblem of full membership in a society, just as the absence of that right makes clear that one lacks full citizenship.

I don’t, however, agree with the (very traditional) characterization of American history revolving around a slowly expanding franchise. Although true at some level of abstraction (and some remove in time), that clichéd, Whiggish history misses the real drama, which is that the history of the right to vote is a history of conflict, and that historical change was not unilinear. There have been many moments and episodes in our history when people who had been enfranchised lost their right to vote.

DT: So you are saying that the right to vote in the United States has a history of expansion and retraction? Can you say something about the historical forces that have led to the expansion of the franchise?

AK: A variety of different factors contributed to the expansion of the franchise, and they had different weights at different historical moments. One was ideological change: an ascendant belief in democracy, especially in the first half of the 19th century (and again, interestingly, after World War II). A second was change in the social structure, which created pressures, often mediated by the appearance of activist groups, to enlarge the franchise: e.g. the growing proportion of non-landowners in the nineteenth century, or (later) urbanization, which affected both women’s suffrage and suffrage for African Americans in the twentieth century. A third, importantly, was war and the need for mobilization in time of war: all of the major expansions of the franchise in American history occurred during or just after wars. A fourth was party competition: once political parties were formed, the dynamics of competition often led to the enfranchisement of new groups.

DT: Yes, I remember when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 during the Vietnam War (“old enough to die, old enough to vote”). The franchise was extended to women just after the First World War, but was the war a causal factor?

AK: In the case of women and World War I, I think it’s fair to say that the war affected the timing of a reform that had been brewing for a long time and was gaining momentum just before the war started. The war gave women the chance to demonstrate that they too could make vital contributions to a nation at war (meeting one longstanding argument about the link between voting and soldiering); it also created a situation where the political mobilization of the citizenry behind the war effort could be facilitated by enfranchising half the population. In an address to the House of Representatives, President Wilson actually urged passage of the 19th amendment as a “war measure.”

DT: What did you find to be the causes of the retraction of the franchise? Can you give an example or two?

AK: The most common source of contractions of the franchise was class apprehension—particularly when coupled with racial or ethnic divisions. The most well-known instance, of course, was the disfranchisement of African Americans in the South at the end of the nineteenth century; this was prompted not only by racism but by the desire of many white Southerners to maintain a disciplined and powerless agricultural labor force. Similar impulses figured in the passage of literacy tests aimed at Irish immigrants in Massachusetts in the 1850s, or Italians and Jews in New York in the early 1920s.

Right to Vote Book CoverDT: When you discuss the issue of backsliding in The Right to Vote, you talk in terms of “a loss of faith in democracy.” Can you tell us what you mean by this? Did this loss of faith manifest itself in ways other than these efforts to limit access to the ballot?

AK: I think that in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, one can see clearly, among some intellectuals and many members of the middle and upper classes, a loss of confidence in democracy as the best form of government. There are remarkable, articulate statements to that effect from people like Francis Parkman or E.L. Godkin. Looking out at the immigrants who were coming to the U.S., many of these writers came to see democracy as something unworkable, potentially corruptible, and unsuitable for the urban, industrial society that was growing all around them. This loss of faith was manifested not only in the many efforts to limit the franchise, but also, for example, in the North’s willingness to tolerate the mass disfranchisement of African Americans in the South, and in the proliferation of non-elected commissions and the city manager form of government early in the twentieth century.

DT: How would you characterize attitudes in the U.S. today regarding the faith in or commitment to democracy? Do you think that U.S. efforts to export democracy to the Middle East, say, influence the average American’s feelings about democracy at home?

AK: I do not think that the U.S. as a whole (if one can speak of such a thing) is at one of its high watermarks in terms of faith in democracy. Ideas and attitudes vary widely among Americans, but there appear to be several currents of thought that I find worrisome. One is a distrust of the electoral participation of the less well-off and less educated—which seems to be fueling things like the drive for new identification requirements for voting. It also showed up after the 2000 election (e.g. in comments about spoiled ballots like “if they can’t read the instructions, they shouldn’t vote”), in comments by public figures (e.g. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia) that the constitutional amendment to allow popular election of senators was a mistake, and in resistance to a proposed constitutional amendment (spearheaded by Cong. Jesse Jackson, Jr.) guaranteeing Americans the right to vote. A second current (linked to the question below) is the sense among many less-advantaged citizens that the institutions of American democracy do not address their concerns.

I’m not sure how our efforts to export democracy really play out at home—except among some citizens who feel aggrieved and wonder why we are exporting democracy while we still seem to have difficulty running trouble free elections here. As I look at the historical record, I find an interesting lack of congruence between formal American commitments to democracy abroad and American commitments to reinvigorating democracy at home. The last great surge in domestic democratic sentiments, of course, took place during the 1960s—at precisely the time that we were fighting a war in Vietnam against political forces that certainly would have won popular elections there had we permitted them to take place.

DT: How do you account for the low voter turnout in U.S. elections?

AK: I don’t think that there is a simple or single explanation. Surely, one important factor is a sense of powerlessness among the less advantaged: voter turnout continues to correlate with income and with education. Precisely where this pessimism about change comes from is unclear, but one factor, less true recently, has been the lack of clear-cut differences between the two major parties. I think that many voters have come to see themselves as spectators to politics, to contests among political and economic elites, in which they are not really players. It is also true that in many places, elections are not particularly competitive, leading many eligible voters to stay home.

DT: Let’s turn to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What are its key provisions?

AK: It is remarkable how anomalous a piece of legislation the Voting Rights Act is in many respects. On the one hand, it was, of course, a landmark in the history of the right to vote in the U.S.; at the same time, in legal terms, it was simply an enforcement act for the 15th Amendment, which had been on the books for almost a century. The stunning fact that the federal government declined to enforce the 15th amendment for so long is too little acknowledged in our discussions of voting, voting rights, and the Constitution.

The key provisions of the original (1965) Voting Rights Act were: the immediate suspension of literacy tests and other voter qualification “devices” in states and counties where fewer than 50 percent of all adults had gone to the polls in 1964 (the “covered” jurisdictions), effectively giving the federal government control over voter registration in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination; and the “preclearance” provision that required covered jurisdictions to obtain the approval of the Justice Department or the federal courts in order to change any aspects of their electoral systems (this was to prevent re-discrimination through some new method). The VRA also challenged the poll tax and, in later iterations, extended protections to language minorities.

DT: You alluded above to the law passed just this summer in the State of Georgia, and under consideration in a number of other states, requiring voters to have an official government-issued identification card. Don’t you think this is less a reflection of distrust of the electorate than simply a measure designed to protect the status quo? Or are these two sides of the same coin?

AK: I think they may be two sides of the same coin. Political professionals know that determining the size and shape of the electorate has a huge impact on the outcome of any election. There are, of course, limits to the mechanisms that can be utilized now to exclude people from the franchise, but what we’re seeing is a lot of skirmishing close to those limits. In 2004, there were many lawsuits—most of which garnered only local attention—that dealt with things like ID requirements, the interpretation of HAVA regulations (the Help America Vote Act), provisional voting, etc.

DT: There are some who oppose the renewal of the Voting Rights Act when it expires in 2007. Can you summarize the objections that have been raised?

AK: The most straightforward answer to your question is that there are many people who claim that the key provisions of the VRA are no longer necessary, that the problem that the VRA was designed to address (the absence of black registration in the South) has been solved. Beyond that, there are diverse and conflicting opinions revolving around the whole redistricting issue . . .

DT: Can you explain briefly the connection between the Voting Rights Act and redistricting?

AK: It is tough to summarize in a few words, but the basic link between districting and the Voting Rights Act has to do with the “preclearance” provision (section 5) of the VRA. This provision mandated that the federal government had to approve any changes in electoral procedures and standards in covered jurisdictions to make sure that they did not deny or abridge anyone`s right to vote. The redistricting that takes place in every state after a census fell under this umbrella—as it had to, in a sense, because it was well known that gerrymandering could, for example, keep African Americans from being represented almost as well as disfranchisement had. In 1982, the renewal of the VRA altered the wording slightly to underscore that new districting schemes (or other laws) would be judged by their consequences, not by their intent. But both before and after 1982, the courts have struggled with districting because they lack a clear standard through which to judge whether districting schemes are discriminatory or not.

DT: Do you anticipate vocal opposition in Congress to reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act?

AK: I anticipate some complex jockeying around reauthorization, although I’m not sure that there will be straightforward “vocal opposition.” I don’t think that it’s an issue of the VRA being reauthorized or not, but what the language, text, and detailed provisions will look like. That will also shape the reaction to it within the civil rights and African American communities.

DT: Before we close, can you tell us about your next project?

AK: I’m writing a book called The Rules of the Game, a history of American election rules and methods. This will deal with the role of money in campaigns, the history of districting, and the electoral college (and why we still have it). It’s a truly odd institution that, for much of our history, was preserved in part because it benefited slave owners and, later, southern advocates of white supremacy. Its preservation is also a notable example of our political leadership not being responsive to the electorate: for as long as we have had opinion polls, more than two-thirds of the population has favored abolition of the electoral college and the direct, popular election of presidents.

DT: Thanks very much, Alex. I’m really looking forward to our symposium on the legacy of the Voting Rights Act on October 29. I’m glad you are going to be with us.


©2005 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2005