Increasing Access to the Ballot Box

Exactly 170 years ago this past Sunday (February 21) the electorate in Bolton favored Democrats in the town’s municipal election. The Hartford Courant, which at the time was ardently opposed to the Democratic Party, derogated the Democrats as “Loco-Focos.” By 1851, the term was used only as an insult (with roughly the same punch that “liberal” had in the late 1990s and early 2000s). But a decade earlier it had described a faction of the national Democratic Party that was fed up with Tammany Hall’s politics-as-usual approach to governance. Ralph Waldo Emerson described the Loco-Foco wing as “fanatics in freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost all laws.”

Today we would struggle to recognize the Loco-Focos as Democrats. Other than their support for labor unions, they seem to have favored the sort of laissez-faire capitalism that led last week to families in Texas being billed thousands of dollars for several days’ worth of electricity. The broader party, too, would be almost unrecognizable today.

The main through line linking the antebellum party with its twenty-first-century descendant is a focus on people and, specifically, on making the democratic process more universally accessible. In the early nineteenth century, that meant support for universal white male suffrage and elimination of the requirement that electors own property.

Clearly the Democrats’ understanding of “universally accessible” was woefully inadequate. At the town election in Bolton in 1851, only white males could vote. Three years earlier, in October 1847, the state—including 90 percent of Bolton voters—had resoundingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have enfranchised Black males.

Today our state legislature is again considering whether to expand ballot access. The issue, thankfully, is no longer whether our Black citizens or women or non-Christians or those who didn’t own property or were illiterate should be allowed to vote. (At one time or another in Connecticut’s history, each of these classes of people were barred access to the ballot box.) Today the concern is how we can make voting easier for all.

Connecticut is one of only seven (mostly Southern) states to not offer early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. While the image of New Englanders gathering on Colonial-era town greens and in wood-shingled town halls on chilly November mornings is cherished by many, it doesn’t reflect present-day realities and needs. We should not allow our nostalgia for an idealized past to get in the way of voting measures whose impact will be felt least in wealthy, white, rural towns like Bolton but will make a huge difference for communities of color and lower-income residents.

As Democrats, one of our oldest legacies—however imperfectly and inconsistently the party has fought for it over the years—is the struggle to bring more voters into the (small-d) democratic fold. By supporting the voting rights legislation currently making its way through the Connecticut Assembly, we will not only be living up to our party’s ideals; we will be strengthening our democracy at a time when some in the country seem hell-bent on rolling us back to the days of Jim Crow.

—Christopher Davey, Chair of the Bolton DTC

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