A deeply embedded belief about the history of U.S. voting presumes an inexorable march toward universal suffrage. The story begins with voting sharply limited to property owners. Thereafter, one by one, inevitably, those without property, Blacks, women, and eighteen-year-olds all secured the franchise.
The groups demanded a seat at the table. They pushed for equality, waged intense mobilization efforts, sacrificed much, and eventually prevailed. For a nation that values political participation, justice, and an open democratic system, this is an appealing narrative.
Yet it’s only half the story.
It fails to identify the circumstances that made the vote possible. Why did it take so long for women to attain the right to vote? After nearly 2 centuries, why were 18-year-olds finally included? Or, for that matter, why did those that were already voters support vote expansion at all?
Alexander Keyssar addresses these questions in his classic, The Right to Vote: A Contested History of Democracy in the United States. His answers spotlight a less appealing, but more accurate and comprehensive, account of enfranchisement.
Governments decide who votes
Let’s not forget, for most of our history, Blacks, women, and young people were unable – by themselves – to gain the right to vote. Their strident appeals to equality and fairness, while important, were not enough to convince established interests of the day.
Rather, the disfranchised needed help. They needed government’s help. After all, it’s governments that determine who votes.
For marginalized groups, suffrage brings democratic influence. For governments, suffrage develops power and builds popular support. As in most political transactions, success depends on whether both sides foresee a benefit.
Like no other situation, war increases the likelihood of enfranchisement.
White males without property, Black men, women, and 18-year-olds all were granted the right to vote during or after war.
Successful warfare is above all else irreconcilable with the idea of a weak and uncertain government. War is a shot of immediate adrenaline, jolting governments into a burst of activity and growth that is rarely offset by peacetime reductions. Governments in short bulk up to defeat the enemy.
Executive power expands. And so does the executive branch. The national government promptly organizes, coordinates, and channels citizens efforts and technological resources toward victory. It is vital that governments meet mounting responsibilities, including transforming the economy to wartime footing and strengthening the public’s resolve. And, when war time passes, government must also cope with the problems of demobilization and recovery.
Consequently, before, during, and after wars, governments benefit from a cooperative and determined public, a public loyal to government and willing to sacrifice for the country. These circumstances afford the disfranchised groups political leverage. Finally, the long-awaited opportunity appears.
Groups want ballot access. The government needs the group’s support and allegiance. This alignment of interests, though unusual, makes expansion of the vote more likely. In fact, nearly all expansions took place either during or in the wake of major U.S. wars.
Let’s briefly examine the 4 groups that were enfranchised because of War.
White males without property
Throughout the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and later the War against Mexico, the federal government needed dependable fighting soldiers. However, it had difficulty recruiting and maintaining an army. Most young men did not own property. And, at that time, only those possessing property could vote. Why would men be passionate about protecting a government they had no role in choosing? In other words, why should men without property risk their lives for a government that shut them out on Election Day?
So, to attract and sustain an army, and enhance the performance of fighting forces, state governments began extending the franchise to property-less white males. The vote became a go-to stratagem to protect the country. Enfranchisement was also used to encourage white males to serve in state militias that protected against slave rebellions.
“Sir, if they come in regiments to the polls to vote, they go in regiments to fight the enemies of their beloved country.” (Legislative Debate, Connecticut 1818).
Thus, protecting the nation from outsiders – and from internal rebellions – triggered the first great expansion of the vote.
The exceptional circumstances of the Civil War – and post-war politics, moved the federal government to support Black suffrage. Black men had fought and died to preserve the Union. After emancipation and military victory, many Blacks declared their political rights.
Addressing a political convention in Nashville Tennessee in early 1865, Andrew Tait, a Black man, argued:
If we are called on to do military duty against the rebel enemies in the field, why should we be denied the privilege of voting…The latter is as necessary to save the Government as the former.
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman agreed, “when the fight is over, the hand that drops the musket cannot be denied the ballot.”
Still, there were other more pressing, pragmatic reasons to enfranchise Blacks besides loyalty to the Union and heroic military service. Republicans controlled Congress and most state legislatures. They wanted to maintain that power. Black voters could help defeat insurgent Democrats. In other words, GOP leaders believed that a newly enfranchised black voter would be a loyal Republican.
They were right.
The Black vote was also crucial to Reconstruction – a period of reorganizing the Southern states and reestablishing them as part of the United States. Black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, recognized the moment. Douglass declared that if given the vote, Blacks would become U.S. government’s
best protector against the traitors and the descendants of those traitors who will inherit the hate, the bitter revenge which shall crystallize all over the South, and seek to circumvent the government that they could not throw off.
In other words, the Black vote could help safeguard the Union victory, assure a successful Reconstruction, and unite the country.
In the first presidential election to take place after the civil war, Republican Ulysses S. Grant won by a narrow popular vote margin over Democrat Horatio Seymour, benefiting from recently enfranchised southern Blacks. Encouraged by Black turnout for Grant, Republicans were eager to support the 14th and 15th amendments. Both amendments were aimed at curtailing attempts by Confederate states to exclude former slaves from voting. Specifically, the 14th would penalize Southern states by removing House seats and electoral college votes and the 15th prohibited racial discrimination in the vote. To rejoin the Union, the Southern states were compelled to fully accept the enfranchisement of Blacks – thereby supporting ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments.
Black suffrage thus directly benefited the fortunes of Republican Party in the North and South. More importantly, it was used successfully as a lever to help unite the nation. The 14th and 15th amendments, which for the first time mentioned the words right to vote in the Constitution, demonstrated the ambition of the federal government. Prior to this, the Constitution had reserved the power to decide who voted to the states. By enfranchising Black men, the federal government helped fashion an enduring and peaceful coexistence between the North and South and usurped power from state governments. Of course, black men benefited – eventually. But so did the federal government.
In 1917, the United States entered WWI. The War offered the women’s suffrage movement a chance. First, it opened a vast range of new jobs for women. Second, women were in high demand for these jobs and very much involved in work crucial to the war effort.
The National American Woman’s Suffrage Association in fact encouraged its members to join the war effort. Thousands of women shifted from traditionally women’s industries – food processing and textile work for example – to traditionally male industries – vehicle production and heavy manufacturing. Women built liberty engines (for airplanes), welded vehicle parts, and worked in munitions factories and warehouses. Others drove ambulances for the Red Cross and served as nurses in military hospitals. Still more offered daycare to working mothers, collected medical supplies and conserved food so soldiers would have more.
In addition, women provided significant political support to the Wilson administration and mobilized resources for soldiers and sailors leaving and returning home. In return, President Wilson, who had previously refused to endorse women suffrage, finally announced his support in 1918 for a federal suffrage amendment – a women’s suffrage amendment had been proposed every year in Congress since 1878.
After a long battle, waged for over 70 years, women would be granted full citizenship rights. But without the war, women may have had to wait even longer. Addressing the Senate, Wilson announced the amendment as a “war time measure”:
We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and of right?
Approved by Congress in 1919, and ratified the next year, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. They could participate fully in democratic processes and know their political preferences counted. The electorate doubled in size overnight.
The campaign to lower the voting age had been around since at least WWII. Legislation to amend the Constitution to lower the voting age to 18 was introduced 11 times between 1942 and 1971. Each time it failed.
It in fact never gained traction until the 1960s. The Vietnam War was unpopular – especially among young people. Large protests of college students across the nation rallied against the military draft. Protestors questioned the federal government’s wartime policies and demanded a greater say in political decision making. Young people’s anti-war chant, “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote” took on greater significance as many young soldiers defended their country and died in battle before they could vote.
As in other war circumstances, the government needed loyal fighters and popular support. But the passionate, and sometimes violent, protests weakened public morale, divided the country, and threatened the government’s legitimacy. Lowering the voting age to 18 could remedy the growing political tensions.
In record time, the 26th amendment was ratified and took effect in the summer of 1971. Over 10 million 18-to-20 year-olds would be able to vote.
It bears repeating, governments determine who votes. And much less understood, governments can benefit from broadening the electorate. Government interests and political calculations are therefore central factors behind any enfranchisement.
This is not to dismiss the ideals of equality, fairness, and justice. While important, they play a secondary and validating role. Similarly, the skills of suffrage leaders to mobilize thousands and persistently press governments should not be overlooked. However, it should not be overstated either. The various suffrage movements for Blacks, women, and young people protested and lobbied for years. But to no avail. It took war to reorganize politics and afford these groups the long-awaited opportunity.
The exigencies of war typically cast governments as demanding, powerful, and callous. But wartime governments are also vulnerable and obliging. They require a cooperative and loyal public. A resilient, unified nation offers the best chance for success. Strong-arming dissent and demanding public support does not produce the type of commitment that endures during difficult times.
History shows groups poised to help governments achieve their wartime goals are most likely to be enfranchised.
Finally, to be clear, governments are not conspiring against the larger public, against one group or another, or granting the right to vote for nefarious reasons. Rather, enfranchisement is a logical consequence of political developments. War is the most prominent of these developments. And each time the electorate expands so too does government power and legitimacy.