...Conflict over exercising the right to vote has been a longstanding theme in our history. The overarching trend, which we celebrate, has been greater inclusion: property requirements were dropped; racial barriers were formally eliminated; women were enfranchised.Read the rest here.
Yet there have always been counter trends. While the franchise expanded during some moments and in some places, it contracted in others, depriving Americans of a right they had once held. Between 1790 and 1850 — the period when property requirements were being dropped — four Northern states disenfranchised African-American voters, and New Jersey halted a 17-year experiment permitting women to vote. During this same period, nine states passed laws excluding “paupers” from political rights.
After Reconstruction, both major political parties attempted to constrict the electorate, albeit in different locales. In the South — as is well known — Democratic state legislatures employed a variety of devices, including literacy tests, poll taxes, “understanding” clauses and, eventually, Democratic primaries restricted to whites. As a result, African-Americans were largely excluded from electoral participation from the 1890s until the 1960s.
In the North, similar, if less draconian, legal changes, generally sponsored by Republicans, targeted (among others) the millions of immigrant workers pouring into the country. In 1921, for example, New York State adopted an English-language literacy requirement for voters that remained in force (and was enforced) for decades. Almost invariably, these new limits on the franchise were fueled by partisan interests and ethnic or racial tensions; they were embraced by respectable Americans, like the eminent historian Francis Parkman, who had come to view universal suffrage as a “questionable blessing.”