Today in South Carolina, hundreds of thousands of voters will head to the polls to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. In the spirit of this time-honored and precious American right, I’d like to explore the Republican Party’s history of defending and expanding the franchise.
Democrats are fond of accusing Republicans of a “war on women” and of attempting to “silence minority voters.” But a brief glance at the historical record suggests otherwise.
Republicans were key in pushing for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which granted all men, regardless of race, the right to vote. Ratified in 1870, the amendment immediately faced resistance in the heavily-Democratic South of the Reconstruction era. Both white and black Republicans in the South faced persistent repression at the hands of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Redeemers, who used intimidation and even violence to prevent Republicans from voting.
In response, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Enforcement Acts, which included the Ku Klux Klan Act, in 1870-1871. These acts made it a federal offense to suppress voters through violence or intimidation, and ensured Republican victories in a number of States in the post-bellum Deep South.
Fifty years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Republicans once again pushed to expand this franchise, this time through the longsuffering women’s suffrage movement. The Republican-controlled government of Wyoming first extended the right to vote to women in all elections in 1869, and a number of States—mostly in the Old West—followed suit, but Democratic recalcitrance had stalled further efforts towards women’s suffrage in other States.
While progressive Democratic President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly came to support women’s suffrage as a wartime measure—after initially opposing giving women the right to vote—the major push for women’s suffrage was a Republican one. The vote over ratification came down to a single Tennessee State legislator, Harry T. Burn, who cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of ratification—making Tennessee the required 36th State to ratify and, therefore, amend the Constitution—after his mother wrote to admonish him to “Hurray and vote for suffrage. Don’t forget to be a good boy.” The son dutifully complied, and women all over the nation gained the right to vote.
Democrats deride sensible voter ID laws and other attempts to clean up elections as insidious attempts to suppress minority voters, while steadfastly ignoring their own checkered past of overt, often violent, suppression.
Fortunately, the Republican Party has consistently stood firm against such suppression, expanding and protecting the franchise for millions more Americans.