Recap: “Middle Atlantic Congressional Elections & the Development of American Democracy,” w/ MU Prof. Jay Dow

The driving question behind Political Science Prof. Jay Dow’s current research—when did the United States become a recognizably electoral democracy?—is one for which history and government textbooks have long had a readymade answer: the dawn of the Jacksonian era. As he showed in his October 11 presentation of this research, however, the problem with the textbook take on electoral democracy pre-1830s is that it doesn’t quite match up with the data on early American elections that we now have thanks to Dr. Philip Lampi, whose tireless work excavating voting records once thought lost to time has been recorded on the New Nation Votes (NNV) website.

First, the “company line.” The textbooks’ take holds that elections before Jackson were characterized by, among other things, scant party organization, low levels of participation, and little responsiveness, neither of voters to issues nor of representatives to voters. Prof. Dow is, in fact, one in a line of Kinder Institute presenters who have pushed back against this narrative. CUNY Prof. of History and inaugural Kinder Institute Visiting Research Fellow Andy Robertson, for example, contended in a recent talk in Jesse 410 that the partisan intensity of the Early Republic couldn’t have happened without some degree—some relatively significant degree—of party organization. And MU Political Science Prof. Peverill Squire presented not too long ago on the glimmers of congressional responsiveness that we see in the early 19th century.

As for his contributions to this developing discourse, Prof. Dow’s research looks specifically at when elections became the primary means for citizens to convey their preferences to a governing elite and to hold elected officials accountable. Or, in his own scholarly parlance, he’s looking at when elections became “routinized.” What marks routinization? Details that more or less invert the aforementioned received narrative of the pre-1830s electoral landscape: partisan affiliation and un-crowded electoral fields, high turnout, issue-based language, congruence across state jurisdictions, and signs of control over (and manipulation of) electoral processes, to name a few.

In terms of what the NNV data tells us about routinization in pre-1824 America, Prof. Dow examined a handful of case studies to show how the numbers spin a tale not of weak participation and a Federalist party that rolled over and played dead in 1812 but instead of vibrant, often hotly contested elections. For example, the fact that voter turnout spiked in Pennsylvania from 1808-1820 at a rate far greater than the population was increasing not only dispels basic low participation myths; given the small margins of victory in many of the elections from this period, this spike likewise suggests fierce partisan inclination and issue-based voting. Again, not what we’ve been led to believe.

Particularly when it comes to overstating the demise of the Federalist Party, Prof. Dow went on to show how tight margins of victory are one of many reasons that “win-loss record” is a poor metric for understanding partisanship and participation during this era. The at-large nomination process in New Jersey, for example, suppressed voter turnout and party mobilization in non-competitive elections, though the opposite was true in competitive elections, of which there were many (even if the Federalists didn’t win them). Similarly, whereas House elections seemed to cast certain regions across the mid-Atlantic as Democratic-Republican strongholds, looking at the election returns for lower chambers (e.g., state assembly) proves this dominance somewhat superficial. The reason why persists today: while they could, in Prof. Dow’s terms, “gerrymander the hell” out of voting districts, they couldn’t change county lines, and when we look at elections that were determined at the county level, states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania start to seem a lot more “purple.” And then, of course, there were failures of coordination. In single member district states like Virginia, Federalists often ended up losing elections in districts they would have otherwise won because they couldn’t prevent votes from being split.

All of these factors—high turnout, the manipulation of elections rules and processes, party clashes, and more—come together both to prove routinization and modernization early-19th-century phenomena and, importantly, to encourage more scholars to revisit the nation’s first decades for further signs of electoral life.