How Americans Were Historically Deprived of Their Votes
Americans used to take democracy for granted. Other countries were dictatorships, fascistic or had elections that were completely corrupt. None of those terrible things would ever happen in America. Our democratic principles were grounded in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the highest ideals of our Founding Fathers.
We now see voter suppression, calls for election results to be met with violence in the street, the use of physical and psychological intimidation against political opponents and well-conceived concerns about tampering with voting machines or tabulated results. There is widespread concern that the election results will not reflect the will of the voters and that one party or the other will impose lasting minority rule over the other.
The thought of an election being stolen appalls most Americans. People who are appalled by the last four years of government policy are even more appalled by four more years of the same.
I completely share those fears. I am candidly hoping for a landslide so huge that the election becomes impossible to steal. If that is what occurs, this essay would become totally moot. Few things could possibly make me happier.
But let’s imagine that there is a contested result – and the possibility of the next President being elected without getting anything remotely close to a popular majority.
That would not be a particularly unusual event in American history.
Contrary to what we were taught in High School Civics Class, America has a long history of limiting voting rights. America has seen
The Disenfranchisement of Men Who Were Not Property Owners
(Income Limits on Male Voting Were Not Fully Eliminated Until 1856)
The Disenfranchisement of Women
The Disenfranchisement of African Americans and Native Americans
The Use of the Electoral College to Reduce the Political Influence of Residents of Big States
The Creation of a Senate to Reduce the Political Influence of Residents of Big States
The Permanent Disenfranchisement of Residents of Washington D.C.
(I live in liberal Austin, Texas. If I walk four blocks, I cross into another Congressional District. If I walk one block in the opposite direction, I cross into a third Congressional District. Most Austinites are represented by conservatives from elsewhere in Texas. In the 1950’s when the Democrats were in power in Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth was gerrymandered just as badly. The very term “gerrymandering” comes from a district that was drawn in Massachusetts in 1812.)
(The Ku Klux Klan was notorious for this.)
Outright Electoral Fraud
Illegal voting is rare today. It has been hard to substantiate claims of either multiple voting or voting by individuals who lack the right to do so. America in the late nineteenth century was a whole different matter. Ballot box stuffing was common. Vote buying was widespread. Intimidation of officials counting ballots was also widespread. Before the 1890’s, ballots were not always secret. Ballots were often given out in different colors based on what party one was supporting – and then put into glass boxes in front of a crowd. Everyone could see who one was voting for. This was an obvious open invitation for vote buying. Vote buying may have been less than ideal. But it did reflect the actual preferences of the electorate. (“Hey, gimme a week’s pay and I’ll support anyone you like.”) Threatening electoral officials was a different matter. The historian Peter Argersinger documents multiple examples of votes being counted in front of large hostile crowds under chaotic and dangerous conditions. Electoral officials were not unlike sports referees officiating a game in front of violent and partisan spectators. Argersinger thinks that not all of these situations led to distortions of election results; however, the number of cases of attempted intimidation was very large. He concludes the results of many elections were determined by mob preference.
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The United States is not alone in this.
Through most of the nineteenth century, most Western European countries required electors to own property in order to vote. Often the more property you owned, the more votes you received. Industrial workers in Stockholm were virtually disenfranchised. Large conservative landowners in the North were allowed to cast multiple votes.
Women were first allowed to vote in Switzerland in 1971.
Many Americans are shocked and appalled by what has been happening in the 2020 election. However, the United States has never had full and complete adult suffrage. (Remember Washington D.C.) Clean impartially run elections that allow all citizens to participate have only existed for part of our history.
Appreciate the fair and balanced elections we have had in the past.
Work to ensure that we continue to have fair and balanced elections in the future.
For More Information
On delays in the granting of full male suffrage, see the useful Wikipedia article “Timing of Voting Rights in the United States.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_voting_rights_in_the_United_States
On gerrymandering, Elmer Cummings Griffith’s 1907 Rise and Development of the Gerrymander is a rich account of the nineteenth century version of this problem.
For an analysis of the last sixty years, see Christopher Ingraham’s “What Sixty Years of Political Gerrymandering Look Like” Washington Post May 21, 2014.
On the Ku Klux Klan and voter suppression in the 1920’s, see Linda Gordon’s 2017. Second Coming of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Political Tradition.
On the struggle of workers to gain the right to vote in Europe, see Charles Tilly’s 2004. Contention and Democracy in Europe 1650-2000.
On the relative lack of electoral fraud in the contemporary U.S., see Levitt, Justin. 2007. Truth About Voter Fraud. New York, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University.
For a carefully nuanced account of electoral fraud in the nineteenth century with a high level of methodological caution about conflicting or politically motivated claims, see Peter Argersinger, 1985/6 article in the Political Science Quarterly “New Perspectives on Election Fraud in the Gilded Age.”