Out of Left Field: The gradual democratization of the vote


In my previous column, I reported that Americans in the 18th century led the world with the highest percentage of eligible voters. Between 70 and 95 percent of adult white males (depending on where they lived in America) qualified to vote; the next best record was 10 percent in England.

The enormous expansion of suffrage in America had significant, unfolding consequences, but it did not guarantee democracy. In the past, as now, how the vote is administered (often manipulated) can limit the power of citizens.

As I mentioned previously, key voting developments expanded in America because British laws were used in a different context. In England, land ownership for the “privilege” to vote limited participation to 10 percent of adult white males because few owned enough land to qualify.

In 18th century America, the same laws empowered huge percentages of adult white males with the privilege to vote because the people were scarce, and the land was abundant.

Most of the narrow British laws for the process of voting were also adopted in colonial America. These had a limiting effect on voters and contributed to what historians properly refer to as a “deferential society” in early America. Class differences in wealth and status gave more opportunities to upper echelon white men.

The process of voting transplanted from England represented a stacked deck. There were no fixed election dates. Governors could “dissolve” an assembly at any time and decide when a new election would be held. Such uncertainty about the process of review for elected officials gave an advantage to incumbents, who had more resources and could be faster to mount campaigns.

The move to fixed terms of office and fixed election dates was one of the lessons from colonial America implemented by the Revolutionary generation.

Another adopted practice from England was to have only one place to vote in each county, overseen by the county sheriff. In an era of horse travel, it was time-consuming and costly to trek to the polling place, sometimes requiring an overnight stay.

Here, too, the 1776 generation began to expand places to vote, certainly a major consideration into 2020, as more convenient access to the ballot has been a continuing concern. (Witness the shrinking number of voting centers in urban areas within some “red” states.)

There was, however, a colonial compensation for a single voting place because elections were often conducted over two or three days. This past lesson has inspired the Drum Major Institute to launch its “Why Tuesday” movement, calling, again, for several days of voting.

When people showed up at the single polling place, voting proceeded in various ways. They were all to the disadvantage of citizens, and to the benefit of elites. There was a total absence of secrecy and privacy in voting, much of which continued into the late 19th century.

The simplest tallying was called a “view” – voters lined up with the candidate they supported, and the sheriff judged by sight who had the most supporters.

A more widely used option (also adopted from England) was “viva voce” (live voice) voting. In this practice, the candidates usually sat at a table, with the sheriff presiding, as each voter presented himself and announced for all to hear to whom he was giving his support. Often the candidate publicly expressed thanks for the vote.

When the votes were finally tabulated, there were opportunities for challenges. For many voters, the election days (while constraining their independence) were often festive occasions, described in detail by Charles Sydnor in his book, “Gentlemen Freeholders.”

Candidates were often expected to provide treats for voters, including food and liquor, and a setting for social interactions. This custom obviously benefitted the more affluent candidates. In later years, there were laws that mandated that liquor stores and bars be closed during Election Day hours. These statutes preceded and outlasted the Prohibition Amendment, but, in recent years, nearly all states have eliminated them.

The voting practices detailed for white adult males prior to 1776 clearly favored the “deferential” aspects of American societies. But, more than anywhere else in the world, the “privilege” to vote gave white adult men the potential to review their elected representatives, even while their choice was limited to casting a ballot for one aristocrat over another. Still, this flawed system provided more citizen power than anywhere else on the globe.

With the American Revolution came a “contagion of liberty,” as described by historians Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood. While protests had early been launched by American elites against the encroachments of a much narrower British aristocracy, it soon became expedient and indeed, necessary, to involve the expansive American electorates.

Although protests began as a battle for home rule against British authority, they increasingly took on dimensions of who should rule at home and how should Americans exercise power. When protests led to war, it was not prudent to deny the vote to American soldiers because they did not own enough land. The rhetoric of liberty fueled the efforts of more ordinary citizens to become candidates and to have more of a say in defining the laws and culture of the independent states as historian Jackson Turner Main shows.

My next column will focus on “The Expanding Democratization of Voting,” beyond white male property owners, with suffrage processes that enhance the power of the many, not the few.


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