When America was born, the right to vote largely extended only to white men who owned property. In the early 1800s, that expanded outward slightly to include white men regardless of property ownership. In the wake of the Civil War, it expanded outward again to include nonwhite men (though this didn’t mean they could immediately vote). About a century ago, another expansion: Women were given the right to vote and, setting aside efforts to artificially restrict voting, every American citizen had suffrage. Done and done.
In its Monday editions, the New York Times reported on a conversation in which Stephen K. Bannon, named as a senior strategist by President-elect Donald Trump, had allegedly floated the idea of reverting the right to vote back to the 18th century. The Times quotes Julia Jones, a former colleague of Bannon’s when he worked in the film industry.
Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.
“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’ ” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’ ” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’ ”
This is not something that should be considered a current policy proposal from Bannon (or, for that matter, from Trump). But it raises an interesting question: What would happen if the franchise were extended only to those who own property?
Data from the Census Bureau indicates that there’s a correlation between the rate of homeownership in a county and the results of the 2016 election. It’s a somewhat loose correlation, but as a general rule, counties where more people own property are also counties that were more likely to back Trump.
Why? Simply because of that point that Jones raised to Bannon: The groups most likely to own homes are whites and older people.
The homeownership rate among black Americans is only 41.3 percent, compared with 63.5 percent overall and 71.9 percent among whites. Younger Americans are also far less likely to own homes than older ones.
Those two groups were also most likely to prefer Trump, according to exit polls. Whites supported Trump by a 21-point margin. Those 45 and older backed him by nine points.
More broadly, it’s the case that Republicans are more likely to own homes, according to data from the General Social Survey. In 2014, 54.6 percent of Democrats reported owning their homes. Among Republicans, the percentage was 80.9 percent.
Flipping the data, though, the split is slightly different. About the same percentage of those who own their homes were Democrats (strongly or not) as Republicans — but far more of those who rent were Democrats.
But these numbers don’t tell us everything we’d want to know about the relationship between property ownership and voting patterns.
The link to age is, in part, a link to income and stability. Younger people are less likely to own homes in part because property is expensive. Such a proposal would undercut their ability to vote dramatically and quickly.
Other questions arise. What if a man and a woman — say, a husband and wife — own property together? Do both get to vote? If a house is in the wife’s name, does that mean that he doesn’t get to vote? How much property ownership would be enough to trigger the stipulation? Could good Samaritans give 0.00001 percent ownership stakes in small plots of land to members of their own party, thereby giving them the right to vote? How would this possibly be verified?
The argument has been made even recently that necessitating property ownership somehow gives voters more of a stake in political decision-making, as though choosing the elected leadership that will set public policy is somehow detached from the average citizen. Such a stipulation is not only poorly considered but simply not practicable, which was probably obvious from the outset.
It gets to Jones’s question to Bannon: Isn’t this simply going to disenfranchise voters who disagree with your politics?
And the answer, as apparently offered by Bannon, is yes.