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U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, earned a True on the Truth-O-Meter in 2013 when he declared that "Nothing in the Constitution explicitly guarantees our right to vote."
He was right that there is no affirmative right to vote spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, though several amendments aim to prohibit discrimination based on race, sex and age.
Pocan is back again seeking a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to vote, in hopes of making it more difficult for states to impose rules on voting, such as having to present a photo identification in order to cast a ballot.
And he got our attention again during an April 19, 2015 news conference where he explained his thinking on the need to update the Constitution.
"If you think about it, when the Constitution was written, 20 to 25 percent of the people in the country could vote," Pocan said. "White male property owners over 21 is a very small subset of the country."
Is Pocan is accurately describing the state of voting eligibility in 1787, when the founding document was signed?
Opening the history books
Pocan directed us to excerpts from "The Suffrage Franchise in the Thirteen English Colonies in America," an oft-cited 1905 book by Albert McKinley.
Like many other sources, the book describes the difficulty in pinning down the size of the pool of potential voters in part because states set their own rules. After all, the constitution had not been signed, so there were no national standards.
"In Pennsylvania the tax-list figures give only potential voters, but they show about eight per cent of the rural population qualified for the suffrage, and only two per cent in the city of Philadelphia," McKinley wrote. "In Rhode Island the freemen or potential voters numbered only nine percent of the population."
The potential voters seem to vary from one-sixth to one-fiftieth of the population," he concluded, after warning that "these figures are entirely too few, and too scattered in time and territory, to justify any accurate generalization from them."
Several experts we turned to for help said Pocan’s estimate was in the right range.
Voting in the late 18th century was restricted to males and generally based on landownership, and did not extend to slaves who were a fifth of the population, said Andrew J. O'Shaughnessy, a University of Virginia historian and vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
The proportion of men who could vote rose in the early nineteenth century as voting restrictions were eased. By early in the century, on average probably 50 percent to 60 percent of white adult males could vote, which would be around 20 percent of the total white population, he said.
Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, put the voting pool at about 18 percent of the adult population.
He based his view on evidence cited in "The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States," authored in 2000 by Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard University historian.
Keyssar, too, told us that Pocan’s claim is roughly accurate.
"It should also be noted that not all states had property requirements," Keyssar said. "In a few, there were tax requirements, and Vermont had no financial qualification for voting."
Mintz has written that leading colonists associated democracy with disorder and mob rule, and felt that only property owners or taxpayers "were committed members of the community and were sufficiently independent to vote."
"Many colonies imposed other restrictions on voting, including religious tests," Mintz wrote. "Catholics were barred from voting in five colonies and Jews in four."
On the other hand, O’Shaughnessy said in an interview with writer Ed Crews that by 18th century standards, "Americans enjoyed considerable voting rights," and that even in Britain, with its elections and representative government, voting practices tended to be unfair, uneven, corrupt, and far more restrictive than America's."
Pocan said, "When the Constitution was written, 20 to 25 percent of the people in the country could vote."
Pocan’s estimate is defensible based on a variety of sources, with the caveat that this is tough territory for statistical precision.
We rate his claim Mostly True.
Wisconsin Eye, News conference on Right to Vote, April 9, 2015
Emails with David Kolovson, Press Secretary, Congressman Mark Pocan, April 13, 2015
Emails with Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, historian, University of Virginia, April 14, 2015
Emails with Steven Mintz, history professor, University of Texas at Austin, April 13, 2015
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, "Winning the Vote: A History of Voting Rights," undated
Colonial Williamsburg Journal, "Voting in Early America," Spring 2007
Emails with Alexander Keyssar, Harvard University historian, April 13, 2015
"The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States," Alexander Keyssar, 2000
"The Suffrage Franchise in the Thirteen English Colonies in America," Albert McKinley, 1905
Emails with Austin Plier, FairVote, advocacy fellow, April 14, 2015
National Archives, "Expansion of Rights and Liberties: The Right of Suffrage."
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