Gregory Downs (Professor of History, University of California, Davis)
October 15, 2019
While many Americans (and many historians) present a narrative in which voting rights expanded in the early 19th century, then were retracted for African-American men in the 1880s, the history of disfranchisement demonstrates the long history of technical manipulation of voter registration, a practice that continues to shape voting rights in the United States. In the 1840s–1850s, Northern states pioneered modes of registration designed explicitly to limit Irish-American and other immigrant voting. Although this effort was halted by the Civil War’s expansive need for popular participation in the military, the practice resumed in the 1870s North, to confront later waves of immigration. When white Southern Democrats sought to restrict the franchise for freedpeople, they turned to these methods pioneered in New England. While we often tell a story of violence and fraud in the disfranchisement of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South, the reliance on technical tools of registration remind us of the long history of making voting difficult in the United States.