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Political science professor details history of voting rights in U.S.

| Monday, April 26, 2021

Notre Dame political science professor Christina Wolbrecht spoke about the history of voting rights and current developments surrounding suffrage in the U.S. as part of the Klau Center’s “Building an Anti-racist Vocabulary” lecture series Friday.

Wolbrecht, who serves as director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, began her lecture by explaining that despite the recent controversy surrounding voting rights the current climate is not out of the ordinary.

“This, in some ways, is not an unusual time,” Wolbrecht said. “Voting rights have been contested at nearly every stage of American history. That’s because voting rights are a form of power, they’re a way in which we select our political leaders, and therefore they’re going to attract conflict.”

She said the nation’s history of voting rights initiates debate about the extent of democracy in America. If democracy is government by the people, then the U.S. was governed by a very narrow definition of “the people” at the time of its founding, Wolbrecht said. She added that the issue of who should have a say in electing government officials is still being contested. 

“This is not a story of a steady march. I think we often have this idea of the arc of history bends towards justice,” Wolbrecht said. “In reality, at least when we talk about voting rights, the arc has bent a little bit and then gone back up and down again.”

Wolbrecht emphasized that the founding fathers did not spend a lot of time discussing voting rights at the Constitutional Convention. In fact, she said the Constitution does not include an affirmative right to vote. 

Ryan Peters | The Observer
Political science professor Christina Wolbrecht discussed voting rights Friday as part of the Klau Center’s weekly lecture series “Building an Anti-racist Vocabulary.

At the founding, property restrictions were widespread throughout the U.S. as it was an inherited tradition from Britain. However, with the rise of Andrew Jackson and “Jacksonian democracy,” as Wolbrecht called it, a push for universal white male suffrage became popular. By 1856, all property requirements were gone, which Wolbrecht said deserves to be recognized as an important milestone.

“The United States is a pioneer in simply allowing all men, all adult men who are white, to participate in elections,” Wolbrecht said. “This is of course a very narrow slice of American population, but I think it needs to be recognized as still an accomplishment around the world.”

Wolbrecht then discussed African American voting rights. After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment was passed which prohibited denying one the right to vote on the basis of race. She said that widespread voter suppression still occurred in the South through the use of grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests and white primaries — which relied on the argument that parties were private organizations and could run their elections however they wanted, and therefore could exclude Black people from voting. 

Regarding women’s suffrage, Wolbrecht mentioned that even though the 19th Amendment, which prohibited states from denying one the right to vote on the basis of sex, was a major achievement that took generations to achieve, it did not help African American women. 

“All those African American women who are being discriminated against on the basis of race, the 19th amendment does nothing for them,” Wolbrecht said.

Wolbrecht said even though the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted citizenship to Native Americans born in the U.S., states still found ways to deny Native Americans the right to vote until 1957. 

Due to recent incidents of anti-Asian violence, Wolbrecht said she finds the history of Chinese American voting rights to be especially relevant. She said the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens and thus denied them the right to vote. Chinese Americans were not able to become citizens and, in turn, vote until the act was repealed in 1943.

To conclude her presentation, Wolbrecht talked about a 2013 Supreme Court case, Shelby v. Holder, which ruled the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s requirement that certain local and state governments needed to obtain preclearance from the federal government before changing voting practices unconstitutional.

Wolbrecht said since the 2013 ruling, states have been able to make it harder for people to vote by limiting the amount of polling places, and this development has especially affected minorities.

“Since 2013 where states are making it harder for you to vote by providing fewer places to do that, the largest declines in polling places have come in places with large minority populations,” Wolbrecht said.

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About Ryan Peters

Ryan is a sophomore in Knott Hall who hails from Lake Forest, Illinois. He is majoring in marketing and — temporarily — political science. He currently serves as an associate news editor for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @peterrsryan.

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