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Tim Stafford

A Terribly Undemocratic Thought

Is universal suffrage a failure?

The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, by Alexander Keyssar, Basic Books, 467 pp.; $30

The history of suffrage in the United States is a strange tale, in which two anomalies stand out. The first is that for much of its history the most democratic nation in the world, a nation whose charter document begins with the words, "We the people … ," gave the vote only to a small minority of its citizens. The vote was largely kept from women, immigrants, people who moved, people who did not own property, people who could not read and write, people who did not speak English, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asians, poor people who required government aid, criminals, and young people.

These restrictions were not a fault in our democracy, according to most of its leaders, but a positive virtue. They considered voting a privilege, not a right, and thought it should be given only to those who were (by their lights) best qualified to adjudicate difficult decisions. Thus, for example, one reason only property holders could vote in most of Colonial America was that they were theoretically independent of influence. A factory worker or a tenant farmer might be controlled by someone else.

The second anomaly is that the right to vote, struggled over during the entire history of the United States, turns out to be less precious than one might suppose, once granted. Immigrants, poor people, non-English speakers, African Americans, Native Americans—the very groups once excluded—have the lowest voter turnout. Our time of universal suffrage shows the lowest level of voting participation in all American history. Hence a terribly undemocratic thought comes to mind: What was all the fuss about?

Alexander Keyssar has produced an admirably restrained, thorough, and thoughtful account of American suffrage. There are few surprises and no blinding revelations, but Keyssar writes well and shows an excellent grasp of a very wide ...

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