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American voting: The local character of suffrage in the United States

Alec C Ewald, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines the local dimension of suffrage in the United States. The U.S. has a hyper-federalized system of election administration, in which county and municipal officials and institutions continue to play important roles, and I demonstrate that a systematic analysis and appreciation of these suffrage practices enhances our understanding of voting rights and American political development. The dissertation makes theoretical, historical, and normative contributions to our ideas about American voting. First, I argue that conceiving suffrage as a practice, rather than merely a formal right or an instrumental behavior, produces a more rich understanding of what Americans actually do at the polls. Historically, I show that prominent roles for local officials and a great deal of variation in voting practices at the county or municipal level have always been components of American suffrage. Such variation—which is today often treated as a scandal or, at best, an historical accident to be rectified—is in important ways a product of purposeful state action, and is closely connected to American ideas about popular sovereignty and the state. Normatively, I emphasize the redemptive aspects of the local character of American suffrage, challenging what seems to be the prevailing bias today against things local. I contend not only that local administration of elections is deeply rooted in U.S. history and thought, but also that local administration has at times been an important engine of inclusion, expanding the bounds of suffrage before state and federal law did so. Americans have always voted together in our communities, and have done so for reasons rooted in our fundamental political traditions.

Subject Area

Political science|Law|American history

Recommended Citation

Ewald, Alec C, "American voting: The local character of suffrage in the United States" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3163666.