When George Washington was elected as the first U.S. president in 1789, he won with a landslide, securing 69 out of 69 available electoral votes. But only a very limited part of the population had actually voted since white property owners were the only group of Americans allowed to participate in the election.
Some of the founding fathers wanted to keep it that way. John Adams warned in a 1776 letter that expanding voting rights to other parts of the population was a “dangerous” idea. “New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State,” he wrote.
Despite Adams’ misgivings, voting rights did eventually broaden—by 1856, property ownership was no longer a factor, in 1870 African Americans secured the right to vote, followed by women in 1920 and Native Americans in 1924. But a system of state-run voter registration, first established in Massachusetts in 1800, has often proven to be more of a roadblock to would-be voters than an invitation to participate in democracy.
“In some places, voter registration was designed to hinder political machines and to make it harder for people to register and to vote,” says Alex Keysarr, a historian at Harvard University and author of the book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. “After some early quarrels, the machines generally learned how to cope with new registration rules and made sure that their people were registered and voting. But many immigrant workers, and, of course, African Americans elsewhere, were prevented from voting.”
The efforts in various states to create voter registration systems did have the stated purpose of bringing, as Keysarr says, “honest, fair, and uncorrupted elections” that voters did benefit from. But voter registration also became a battleground across the nation with vying political factions manipulating the execution of these laws to favor votes for their side.
Voter registration was set up to prevent fraud, but sometimes created it.
Throughout the states, voter registries were stalled in legislation in the decades following the creation of the Massachusetts system. Some New England states followed suit, but most did nothing until mass efforts in the north after 1860 made registries seem required. When the systems were eventually developed, they were mostly confined to large cities.
Pennsylvania’s 1836 voter registration laws in Philadelphia show how some voter registries ended up limiting voters, Keysarr writes. Opponents charged that voter registration created more fraud than it prevented and was intentionally designed to cut down the number of voters in the city, handing control of state legislation to rural voters. It wasn’t uncommon for Philadelphia voters to show up at the polls only to find their names removed from the official documents. When an attempt was made to make registration statewide, it was easily defeated.
Urban growth and immigration following the American Civil War spurred the establishment of more voter registrations, but some charge the drive had more to do with black Americans moving north and the desire to suppress their political voice.
Wherever voter registrations were put in place, sneaky attempts to control whose names got on the voter rolls followed. Registration during this post-Civil War era was mostly accomplished by going door to door so it wasn’t hard to avoid registering poor citizens and others deemed undesirable by corrupt political parties. And the systems were rife with fraud that allowed for fake registration.
Because of the political battles meant to fix corruption, registration laws were typically in constant flux and voters found it difficult to keep track of how and when to register.
Registration laws could be comically restrictive.
Some efforts to limit registration were comically restrictive, Keysarr writes. For example, that in 1885, Ohio allowed voters to register on only seven select days during the year until a court overturned the law.
An 1867 New Jersey law stipulated that registration was only allowed on the Thursday before election and anyone was permitted to dispute a registrant. In neighboring New York City in 1908, voter registration was held on the Jewish Sabbath and during Yom Kippur as a way of keeping Jews, many of whom were Socialists, away from the polls.
Since corruption continued to be a concern, states turned to the idea of having a central, unaffiliated statewide authority oversee elections. In 1913, Nebraska created a permanent registry with an election commissioner that would become the standard model, based on Boston and Chicago efforts.
By World War I, most states had voter registration laws, but the controversies never went away. In 1920, the 14th Amendment allowed states to decide what crimes would allow the loss of voting rights, which, Keysarr says, has been used to purge large segments of the population (mostly black) from the rolls. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented black Americans from exercising their right to vote.
Keysarr estimates that while registration laws have cut down on fraud, they’ve also dissuaded millions of voters from exercising their right.
“Any voter registration system is dealing with trade-offs between preventing fraud and making the ballot box accessible,” Keysarr says. “The devil was and is in the details, as we are seeing now in Georgia, North Dakota, and elsewhere. A lot of the current controversies have features similar to those in the North and the South in the 1890s.”