March 25, 2021

Original Intent to Suppress the Vote

By Glenn

People who scream about the “original intent” of the Constitution too often don’t know the “original intent”.  Or if they do understand the “original intent”, they want to use it to restrict their neighbors’ hard won freedoms.

Voting rights clearly fall into the second category.  The Constitution originally intended voting restrictions.  States had the right to limit voting anyway they chose.

The most common restrictions were property qualifications.  Only individuals who owned property could vote.  This qualification kept most Americans from the voting booth.  The Founding Fathers didn’t want poor people voting. 

By John Trumbull – US Capitol, Public Domain,

A property qualification had an added “benefit.”  It excluded women.  Most states had strict laws preventing women from owning property.  No penis.  No property.  No vote. 

In the 1820s, working class white males began demanding the right to vote. The argued their labor entitled them to participate in government. 

New states in the Eastern Mississippi and Ohio River valleys took advantage of these demands.  They offered suffrage (the right to vote) to all adult white males.   Eastern states had to follow suit or face violent protests from their white working class.

This remained the status quo until after the Civil War. Congress originally intended only to abolish race based slavery and say nothing about voting.  Voting restrictions would remain a States’ Right. 

The consequences were swift and predictable.  The former confederate states passed legislation retracting the Freedman’s right to vote.  Congress responded by passing the 15th Amendment, gaining the Constitutional power to protect the right to vote.

While this amendment was a big break with the “original intent,” it contained some major loopholes.  For example, the authors carefully, and intentionally, avoided expanding suffrage to women. 

Women felt betrayed.  Susan B. Anthony had been ardent abolitionist.  When she heard Frederick Douglas cut a deal to include black men but exclude women, she exploded.  Her vile and racists comments do her memory no good.

Eventually, however, feminists like Anthony won the right to vote.  At the same time, states became creative in their push back racial equality and voting.    Not until the 1960s Civil Rights movement did Congress finally fulfil the promise of the 15th Amendment.

Today the “original intent” mob has its sights on voting rights again.  Texas conservatives want local officials to block disabled voters from the polls.  They want the voter to get a note from their doctor before exercising their rights and protections under the law. Are you going to let it happen again?

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