Working-Class Immigrants and Voting Rights

Native-born, white Americans worried about working-class immigrants participating in politics. Some of those who wanted immigrants kept from the polls argued that recent immigrants did not understand “American values” and American democracy well enough to vote.

Some feared that immigrants from politically troubled countries might try to bring radical ideas (like Marxism or anarchism) into American politics. Others thought that Catholics, whom they believed were controlled by the Pope, would try to influence Protestant American society.

Fears of Immigrant Voting

Sadly, some activists used fear of immigrants as a strategy to fight for their own voting rights at the expense of those for immigrant groups. For example, women’s suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt used class, racial and ethnic fears to argue that giving voting rights to white, middle-class women would protect native-born Americans against foreign threats to the “American way of life”:

That danger lies in the votes possessed by the males in the slums of the cities, and the ignorant foreign vote which was sought to be bought up by each party, to make political success ... Not only is the native-born American jeopardized in life and property, but the citizens of foreign birth who desire good government. It will be readily seen that granting the vote to women and cutting off the vote of the slums, if it could not be otherwise controlled, would result at once in good to the nation.”
Carrie Chapman Catt, 1894

Politics of Immigrant Voting Rights

There were also practical reasons for the political establishment to be concerned about immigrant voting. Whigs, and later Republicans, found that working class immigrants were more likely to vote Democratic. Abolitionists a person who favors the abolition of a practice or institution, especially capital punishment or (formerly) slavery. fighting against slavery saw immigrants as a pro-slavery voting bloc.

As working-class immigrants settled in cities, those cities grew enormously. Between 1880 and 1920, the percent of the U.S. population that lived in cities rose from 20% to 68%. Political “machines” arose in many large cities with the goal of electing their group of candidates, who then distributed political favors to their supporters. These organizations built loyal voter followings among immigrant groups, often by providing food, jobs, or housing.

These fears, beliefs and political realities about the voting power of working-class immigrants fueled efforts to keep them from gaining citizenship and voting rights, or efforts to court their votes once citizenship and voting rights were gained.