First-year students guard their right to vote by studying rigged elections
This article is part of an occasional FOCUS series on the Byrne Family First-Year Seminar Program. The one-credit courses offer students a chance to explore science, art, politics, and other topics as they learn firsthand from professors who are deeply – and often passionately – immersed in research. In its second year, the seminars program is a central part of the transformation of undergraduate education in New Brunswick. The task force envisioned an intellectual community that embraces undergraduates as soon as (and even before) they arrive on campus.
T. Jackson Lears, professor of history and teacher of the Byrne Seminar “How to Steal an Election,” takes the subject of the seminar personally as well as professionally.
“I am a citizen and a voter, and I am disturbed by the proliferation of problems with voting in the last several elections,” Lears said.
The seminar explores the history of electoral fraud in the United States, from the Jim Crow era through the 21st-century. “To make democracy something more than a hollow ritual, vote counts must be as accurate as possible. If students, like other citizens, want their votes to count, they need to know about the many subtle and complex ways to steal elections," Lears said. "Some techniques are legal; others are electronic, wide-ranging, and virtually undetectable. All undermine the very basis of our democracy: the consent of the governed.”
Lears is a cultural historian with a wide array of interests – U.S. intellectual history, folk history, comparative religious history, and the history of visual arts in America. He has written books on topics as diverse as advertising and luck. For this seminar, he researched the various means of election stealing – legal and illegal, high-minded, and base – including George Washington Plunkitt’s 19th-century adventures with Tammany Hall in New York, attempts to disenfranchise African Americans in the South and working-class people in the North after the Civil War, and the recent controversies surrounding the elections of 2000 and 2004.
The students assembling in Lears’ Mine Street office conference room on a midSeptember afternoon were still figuring out how to use the library and finding out what parties were scheduled for the weekend. But when Lears appeared, bearing bottles of soda water and bags of cookies, the students got down to business.
“I’ve learned that first-year students at Rutgers are remarkably smart and savvy about politics,” Lears said. “I’ve gained a clearer notion of objectivity; it is not simply balance but evidence.’”
Since their last meeting, the group had been reading about ways to abridge the right to vote without breaking the law – basically, by changing the law. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Lears led the class in a discussion of the systematic restriction of the right to vote in the South and the “Australian ballot,” a term for secret ballot, based on the practice originating in Australia in the 1850s.
In post-Civil War America, the secret ballot was promoted as an electoral reform, but it was also part of efforts to “purify” voting by making sure that poor, illiterate, and black voters didn’t vote. Tactics included literacy tests, poll taxes, the grandfather clause, and the “fighting grandfather clause,” Lears said, which a man could vote, illiterate or not, if his grandfather fought for either side in the Civil War – unless he was black and fought for the Union.
Lears asked first-year student Corey Strausman to explain how a literacy test might work. “Well, it might mean that a white person would be asked to read a sentence or two, and a black person might be asked to read The Canterbury Tales,” Strausman replied.
That question-and-answer exchange might take place in any class. But now, Lears shifts pedagogical gears. Throughout the class, he adopts a series of provocative positions and invites his students to challenge his point of view. This intellectual debate, characteristic of upper-level courses, is central to the Byrne Seminars.
Lears played devil’s advocate, asking if there might be some justification for a literacy test. “Let’s try a thought experiment,” he said. “Might not a literacy test be justifiable? Part of the noble cause of election reform, so that only informed citizens can vote?” he asked. “Some of you in this very room have pointed out that people often cast their votes for the dumbest of reasons. ‘Oooh, I think he’s cute, I’ll vote for him.’ That sort of thing.”
No one in the class spoke in favor of literacy tests, not even Boris Van Der Ree, whom Lears identified as a “Burkean conservative.” “A literacy test is never noble or even moral,” Van Der Ree said. “It’s just an attempt to keep people from voting who might not vote your way.”
Pre-business major Liz Satter defends a voter’s right to cast a vote based on cuteness. “I might think other people vote for someone for dumb reasons, and they might think the same of me,” she said. “But voting is a right, and if I want to vote for somebody because he’s cute, that’s my business.”
"Okay, I surrender,” Lears said. “I abandon my defense of literacy tests. I think they’re outrageous. I always suspected as much, but now you’ve convinced me.”