2019 Lincoln Ideas Forum Recap

On April 12, 2019, President Lincoln’s Cottage hosted our fifth annual Lincoln Ideas Forum. We launched this program in 2015 for the 150 anniversary of Lincoln’s last visit to the Cottage, the day before his assassination. Our goal is to commemorate the ideas he created and the work he accomplished while living here, as well as to highlight his unfinished work.

In April of 1865, Lincoln proposed offering the vote to black soldiers who had served in the Union Army. It would turn out to be one of his final speeches: it’s thought that this proposal is part of the reason Booth accelerated his plans to assassinate the president. This year, we explored the pressing issues around voting rights as our theme at the Forum, which brought together experts, scholars, and the public in an exploration of the historic contexts of citizenship, voting rights, and the Constitution, alongside the contemporary repercussions of debates over who gets elective franchise.

Speakers included: Brianne Gorod, Constitutional Accountability Center, Julie Silverbrook, Constitutional Sources ProjectJason Torchinsky, Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky PLLC, Robert Tsai, American University, Elaine Weiss, Author, and moderator Lillian Cunningham, Washington Post.

For bio of the speakers, click here.

The Program

Below are the abstracts of the speakers’ talks:

Breakdown of Political Party Institutional Loyalty and Impact on the Political Discourse
Jason Torchinsky
Political party institutional loyalty from voters and candidates has long played a centering role in American politics. Recent reforms and changes in both campaign finance and redistricting have served to undermine the centering role in politics traditionally lead by political parties and political party leadership. As the debate over campaign finance and redistricting reform continues, consider the impact that these changes have on institutional leadership and the broader political discourse.

Addressing Voter Suppression Using the Constitution’s Text, History, and Values
Brianne Gorod
Voter suppression is one of the most important issues that our country is facing today because, as the Supreme Court has observed, the right to vote “is preservative of other basic civil and political rights.” In thinking about how to address this problem, we should start with the Constitution and its text, history, and values. No right is protected by more parts of the Constitution than is the right to vote, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits denying the right to vote on account of race, marked a radical transformation in our system of government, giving Congress broad new powers to pass prophylactic legislation in order to protect the right to vote. In thinking about how to address voter suppression, we should think broadly about both what the problems are, as well as how we can best solve them, through legislation and other means. In terms of the problems, we should think not just about the most obvious forms of voter suppression such as voter ID laws, but also other ways in which our democracy is undermined by the impingement of the right to vote, such as partisan gerrymandering and felon disenfranchisement. In terms of the solutions, we should push back against specific problems, but we should also think about proactive and affirmative steps that we can take to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote.

How the First Amendment Helps Protect the Right to Vote
Robert L. Tsai
Historically, the First Amendment has been important to safeguard the franchise. Both rights—which facilitate political activism and free expression—are deeply connected mechanisms for ensuring democratic accountability. Today, we need to consider how to revive the First Amendment so it can help us to deal with new kinds of restrictions intended to block access to the vote, disenfranchise felons, reduce the voting power of minority populations, and otherwise devalue the principle of one person, one vote.

The Women’s Vote: Did it Ever Exist?
Elaine Weiss
The concept of a “woman’s vote” — which has been hyped by many (including the suffragists) but rarely materialized in any sustainable fashion. In the 19th and 20th c the suffragists claimed that if women could vote, their elevated moral sensibilities and “social housekeeping” skills would clean out corruption in politics and “purify” government. They used it as a threat- against politicians opposed to woman suffrage: when we get the vote, we will drum you out of office. And Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party seriously considered turning itself into a real political party, promoting their own slate of women candidates running on a platform of issues beneficial to women and children. None of this happened. Now we speak of the “gender gap” and the “pink wave”–but what does it mean, if women do not (and should not be expected to) vote monolithically. As more women are elected to office at all governmental levels, what is the future of the “woman’s vote.”


Throughout the program, audience members wrote down questions and comments they had on note cards. Here are a few selections. Got any good answers? Let us know on social media via the hashtag #LincolnIdeas and tag us @lincolnscottage.

  1. Would it be constitutional to require voting, like Australia? Serving on a jury is a right, and it is required.
  2. A presidential candidate recently mentioned abolishing the electoral college. Is this feasible? Has it become outdated in the 21st century?
  3. Any thoughts on when DC will gain 51st state status and full representation in Congress?
  4. Regarding mail-in ballots, how can we make sure they are received and counted, and not disposed of fraudulently?
  5. On countering voter suppression: Let’s abolish Columbus Day and put in National Voting Day.
  6. On campaign financing: Seems like the Supreme Court interferes too much in campaign finance regulations. I disagree that parties are overall beneficial since they perpetuate their survival at cost of the civic body.
  7. Does the broad authority of Congress under the elections clause of the Constitution and the 15th Amendment imply that congress, not the courts, should deal with redistricting issues? If so, is the answer that extreme cases reflect a Congress that will not act?
  8. Many states are considering a law requiring their electoral college representatives to vote for the candidate with the highest national popular vote. Would that likely be struck down?
  9. Does gerrymandering, if unchecked, result in more extreme results due to the primary being the only meaningful election?
  10. Since, in general, the powerful have only fully been inclined to moderate bad electoral behavior when facing consequences, what penalties should or could protect voting rights today?
  11. How should courts draw the line between “baseline” redistricting and “extreme partisan” examples?
  12. Why are ex-felons not allowed to vote given the “previous condition of servitude” clause of the 15th amendment?
  13. How can we combat voter apathy and get Americans actually to go to the polls and vote?


See below for some photos of the event, courtesy of Bruce Guthrie.

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