The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

Taking the genre of revisionist history to the suffrage movement, Keyssar is able to create a true telling of the history of the right to vote that is unparalled.

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Review by Melissa Hostetler


Alexander Keyssar's The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States is a prime and outstanding example of the narrative and revisionist history made popular by Howard Zinn. Too often historians tell only facts and no stories, leaving the reader with no context and a headache.

Keyssar offers more than the high school explanation that usually consists of: at first only men were able to vote, then black men, then women, and then the voting age was lowered .. just like that, and it only took, uh, well it took a long time, but everyone can vote now, so it’s OK. By dissecting the history of the franchise moment by moment, and movement by movement, he is able to give context and balance to the creation of the right to vote and the continuing struggle for democracy in a country that seemingly embraces it.

As Keyssar states in the preface, all the factors and forces that created America’s right to vote were also present in other countries around the world. While the US was the first to significantly broaden its electorate, it was one of the last countries in the developed world to embrace universal suffrage. This paradox exemplifies America’s schizophenia about democracy and leads Keyssar on a journey to show why this is so.

The journey is long and not without it’s bumps. Keyssar has chosen to tackle a subject that is often glossed over and simplified. He should be commended for not taking the easy way out. For example, as is well known, many suffragist women allied themselves with black males in hopes of having a constitutional amendment that granted suffrage rights to both groups simultaneously. But, after the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1866 containing the word "male," some advocates of female suffrage (including Susan B. Anthony) overtly opposed black suffrage -- a move which essentially caused the defeat of both African-American and woman suffrage. In this instance and in others, Keyssar shows the weaknesses of all side of the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements, and therefore distances himself from posturing and is able to deliver a true telling of the road to universal suffrage.

But not only does Keyssar cover the suffrage movement itself, he also illustrates the avenues local, state, and even the federal government took to skirt suffrage laws after they were passed. On the state and municipal levels, mayors and ward-based aldermen were replaced with appointed city managers and commissioners elected at-large in non-partisan elections. The federal government also stepped in, like the local governments, and essentially took policy decisions out of democratic control by instituting commissioners and agency heads who were elected for lengthy terms and could not be removed by elected officials -- think Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Reserve Board.

The said reforms coupled with the appearance of interest groups and the fading out of third party candidates and platforms took the fight out of those wishing to further restrict suffrage. It was now safe to enfranchise everyone and not have the boat rocked. This mindset led to the enfranchisement of the mobile, poor, illiterate, non-English speaking, and others.

Though Keyssar focuses mostly on the history of the right to vote and it’s social and political relevance throughout the history of America, he does leave the door open to a modern critique of the electoral system. He mentions that there is still work to be done in the realm of having a more democratic society. For example, Keyssar mentions the voting registration process is needlessly complicated and restrictive and holds hope for a day when the polls would be open longer to accommodate lower-income working people and money does not play such a large role in electoral politics. Things we should all be concerned about and working toward … and now, with Keyssars’ book, we have the ammunition.

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