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Fri Jun 11, 2021, 01:12 PM

US history holds a chilling warning about restricting votes

Opinion by Jon Grinspan

As a curator of political history at the Smithsonian, I've spent years studying the bad old days of American politics. Leafing through contested election trial transcripts, constable's reports and boxes of fraudulent ballots, I've studied the voter suppression and violence that was once a common feature of our democracy in the 19th century. It always seemed distant to me, with a consoling "it used to be worse" appeal. But recently, this past has been reanimated by new, partisan state laws designed to make it harder to vote.

Having spent years researching how similar policies affected democracy in the 19th century, I can say: America, please don't go down this road again. We already know what happens if we do.

In fact, there are a few crucial lessons to learn from similar efforts in the past.


Consider the arc of American democracy from the 1820s to the 1920s. Beginning in the 1820s, most states stopped requiring that White males own property to vote, opening voting access to working class and younger voters. Turnouts shot up from roughly 25% of eligible voters in the 1820s, to over 80% in 1840, 1860 and 1876.



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