In the Spring of 1776, not long before he signed the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to James Sullivan, a friend and judge on what was then the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, seeking advice about how best to enshrine voting rights in a nation yet to be born.
“It is certain in Theory, that the only moral Foundation of Government is the Consent of the People,” Adams wrote in his letter dated May 26, 1776. “But to what an Extent Shall We carry this Principle?”
As any sixth grade history student ought to be able tell you, Adams set the original limits of America’s representative democracy, persuading his fellow Founding Fathers to grant the franchise exclusively to white men who owned property — a decision inspired by 18th century British beliefs about race, gender, intelligence, religion, and fiscal probity. Hopefully, that same elementary school scholar would also be able to explain why the Framers were wrong to exclude women, blacks, and Native Americans.
Nevertheless, the decisions of our nation’s founders to limit who could rightfully vote, touched off an epochal struggle for voting rights that continues to this day. But what might our modern-day federal government look like, if we returned to ideas similar to the ones that guided Adams and the rest of the Framers?
In an intriguing thought experiment, FiveThirtyEight attempted to calculate what the electoral map might resemble if only one group of Americans — say, perhaps, only men or only women, or only whites or only nonwhite voters — were allowed to cast their ballots in next week’s midterm elections. To arrive at their totally speculative and hypothetical observations, the nerdy number-crunchers at the opinion polling and statistical analysis outpost conducted a complex set of calculations based on its own generic ballot tracker to handicap and plot on a map every House district’s outcome as if voting were restricted to certain population groups.
Let’s dispense with any legalisms or practicalities associated with so ridiculous an idea and proceed directly to a judgment on test outcomes: Suffice to say, restricting the vote in such a draconian way led to results too horrible to imagine no matter how you sliced it. For example, if only white people without a college degree voted, the projected midterm results would send 268 GOP lawmakers to Washington, reflecting a legislature that would be “almost entirely red outside of big cities” and representing the largest margin for Republicans among the various scenarios studied.
At the diametrically opposite end of the political spectrum, if only people of color voted, the analysis suggests, “they would elect a gigantic Democratic majority (the largest projected majority out of any group we looked at),” with a mere 47 Republican congressional districts out of the nation’s overall 538 congressional districts.
Even in these hyper-partisan times, such extreme outcomes are grossly unfair and contrary to any notion of democracy. Nobody should cheer such utter political domination in a nation as large and diverse as ours — even in these theoretical cases. Yet, these findings aren’t nearly as shocking as they are revelatory about the extent to which our nation is badly fractured by race, gender, and political ideologies. Indeed, the FiveThirtyEight color-coded political maps provide an awful, and graphic, visualization of how politically divided our nation is and how separate our lives have become from one another.
In a separate, but similar study to the FiveThirtyEight experiment, reporters at The New York Times analyzed the 2016 election to find that the number of so-called “landslide counties,” where the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate won by 20 percentage points of more, “has steadily increased over the last seven elections and now makes up a whopping 60 percent of the electorate.”
Put another way, more and more Americans live in isolated, silo-like communities, surrounded by people who think — and vote — exactly as they do, with the resulting impact being that people fail to identify or even cooperate with those who don’t agree with their lifestyles or political views. As Bill Bishop, author of the 2008 book “The Big Sort,” which drew attention to the self-segregation of Americans, told The Times: “We’re sorting by the way we live, think and — it turns out — every four years or every two years, how we vote.”
As Adams letter to Sullivan reveals, the idea of universal suffrage was as unpopular a concept to the Framers as it seems to be for many conservative political leaders today. In his correspondence with Sullivan, who had publicly expressed an opposition to slavery and a willingness to support womens’ suffrage, Adams vehemently argued against such notions:
Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the 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. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.
As the 2018 midterms approach, history’s lessons remain unlearned in many regions of the nation. A battle rages across the land over Americans’ access to the ballot box. Notably, in Georgia, state elections officials have been accused of voter suppression targeting African Americans, harshly criticized for 50,000 voter registrations being put on hold, and castigated for the failure of voting machines to function properly.
Similar concerns have been raised in North Dakota, where Native American voters have waged court battles to allow voting despite a Supreme Court decision requiring all voters to provide identification with street addresses rather than P.O. box numbers. (Native Americans, living on reservations, often don’t have individual residential addresses.)
The struggle for voting rights for every citizen has shifted from the eloquent debate between Adams and Sullivan to obstructionist activities by some white politicians seeking to hold onto their dominance against a rising tide of politically engaged people of color. In either case, the idea of universal suffrage falls short of being a broad and fair privilege, but a struggle of excluded Americans to share in the moral foundation of self-governance with an entrenched set of white voters.
If the history of voting rights in our nation teaches us anything, it’s that the wrongheaded decisions of our founders’ past created disastrously lasting barriers to the promise of a vibrant and diverse democracy. If today’s data adds a fresh lesson, it’s that we’re not as near to the ideal as we perhaps imagine ourselves to be.