Einstein, Katherine Levine, and Maxwell Palmer. 2021. “Land of the Freeholder:How Property Rights Make Local Voting Rights.” Working Paper.
A large body of research documents the dominance of homeowners in local politics. There has been little scholarship, however, on the role that voting institutions have played in empowering homeowners from this country’s inception; indeed, most accounts describe property qualifications for voting and officeholding as largely fading from view by the mid-1800s. Combining a novel analysis of state constitutions and constitutional conventions with data on state statutes, this article explores the emergence of property qualifications for voting, with a particular emphasis on their role in local politics. We find that, counter most historical narratives, property requirements persisted well into the 20th century, with almost 90 percent of property requirements restricting voting and officeholding at the local level. Most centered on local bond referenda, school districts, and land use—suggesting that homeowner citizens were granted particular political control over local taxation and public services. These requirements were largely clustered in the American South and West—emerging alongside Jim Crow laws and mass availability of federal public lands—and were not eliminated until the Supreme Court took action. This article illuminates the important role that voting institutions played in linking homeownership with American democratic citizenship, especially at the local level.