Democracy and Voting in the Modern United States


February 2019

I’ve lived in three states in the last eight years (New Jersey, Iowa, Michigan), and will move to my fourth (California) this summer. In many ways, it’s been an interesting sojourn for a lifelong student of American history and culture. Such geographic shifts provide potent reminders of the importance of regional culture and the imprint of federalism on our governmental arrangements, especially pertaining to states' authority over voting. 

The elections of 2016 and 2018, in particular, shone a spotlight on two contemporary challenges to democracy in this country--gerrymandering and voter suppression. These baneful practices have long histories but have garnered increasing attention over the last decade since they are being exploited with new precision and effect due to technological advances, for example, the ability to draw district lines using geographic information systems and demographic databases that can neutralize the votes of racial and ethnic minorities.

In this post, I highlight two books that would be useful to any social studies teacher, whether of civics, American History, or American Government, in teaching about how we've gotten into this situation with respect to voting:

  • Carol Anderson, “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy” (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018).
  • Allan J. Lichtman, “The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
I read Lichtman first, which worked well since it provides a comprehensive overview of the history of voting in the US. Anderson picks up the story, concentrating chiefly on the 20thcentury and the myriad ways in which states have used their designated authority over voting under the US Constitution to undermine democracy. I’ll provide a brief synopsis of both books here, but encourage readers to dig in more deeply when they have time.

Social studies students might be surprised by Lichtman’s statement in his first chapter (entitled “The Founding Fathers’ Mistake”) that “the framers did not inscribe a right to vote in the original Constitution or Bill of Rights” (p. 14). Only in the Fourteenth and Nineteenth Amendments did the federal government make statements about the qualifications needed for the franchise while the Seventeenth Amendment changed the manner in which US Senators would be selected, from control by the state legislatures to direct election. Otherwise, the framers left matters related to qualifications of voters and practices around elections, voter registration and polling places, and the manner in which votes are to be cast (voice, paper, electronic means) up to individual states.

 Lichtman’s analysis of how the states have managed these processes is closely tied up with changing views over American history towards socio-economic class/property ownership, gender, race/ethnicity, immigration status, and citizenship. States have also differed regarding whether felons can vote after their release from prison. Despite a general narrative of expanding the franchise and making the process of voting somewhat easier than it once was, significant efforts towards reversing these trends can be seen. By comparison with many democracies, the policies around voting in many states make it far more difficult than those found in other nations where, for example election day is a national holiday. Lichtman’s last two chapters deal with changes in these policies since 1965 when the US Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and what he calls “new wars over the vote” (p. 180).

 These “new wars” get extensive treatment in Anderson’s book. The stories she tells begin in the late 19thcentury told in her first chapter called “A History of Disfranchisement.” Anderson focuses on the “Mississippi Plan,” which she calls a “dizzying array of poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, newfangled voter registration rules, and ‘good character’ clauses—all intentionally racially discriminatory” (p.3). Subsequent chapters move from a narrative to a topical orientation, and she focuses on: voter ID laws, voter roll purges, rigging of the rules for voting, and resistance by groups such as the NAACP, ACLU, and League of Women Voters to these efforts. Both books make the point that fraudulent voting is an extremely rare event despite the fact that it has been trumpeted by individuals whose endgame is voter suppression.

 In her concluding chapter, “At the Crossroads of Half Slave, Half Free,” Anderson describes efforts by some states to expand the franchise by making voter registration easier, polling places more accessible, and reinstating the rights of felons to vote. Despite these positive signs, she concludes: “In short, we’re in trouble. Years of gerrymandering, requiring IDS that only certain people have, illegally purging citizens from the voter rolls, and starving minority precincts of resources to create untenable conditions at the polls have exposed our electoral jugular and made the United States vulnerable to Russian attacks on our democracy” (p.157).

Little wonder, then, that Freedom House (2019) recently downgraded the status of the United States within the roster of nations considered “free” around the world ( As one of eighty-seven countries Freedom House considers democracies today, up until a few years ago the US ranked in the top 30. In the last several years, however, its place in among democratic nations has slipped considerably, now falling behind fifty-two other nations in its support of freedom, democracy, and civil rights.

 Lichtman’s and Anderson’s books offer ample evidence of the many reasons that democracy is in retreat not only worldwide, as Freedom House puts it, but also in the United States as well. Creating inquiry-oriented lessons about voting, voter qualifications, and voting practices in the state in which you teach would be an important teaching strategy that aligns easily with all ten themes of the NCSS standards but perhaps most particularly with Standard 6 on Power, Authority, and Governance. Raising these issues in elementary and secondary social studies classrooms will promote good teaching and learning in social studies as well as good citizenship and better democracy among the next generation.

Dr. Margaret Crocco
Chairperson, Department of Teacher Education 
Michigan State University