America’s Long History of Voter Suppression
Voter suppression is a grand old American tradition that dates back to the earliest days of the republic.
In fact, voter suppression began at the Constitutional Convention and continues to this day. The recent political battles over voting are only the latest round in an endless war to suppress the vote, or protect voter rights.
Consequently, we can see where the voting wars are going by examining America’s long history of voter suppression. We need to study this history because voter suppression shaped America’s political system and the nation itself.
Voter Suppression in the Constitution
Frighteningly, the Founding Fathers wrote voter suppression into the Constitution. In fact, there are several voter suppression measures in the original Constitution.
For example, Section Two of Article I of the Constitution specifically deprives most Native Americans and African American Slaves of the vote. The infamous three-fifths clause states: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
This language is the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise they wrote to limit the political power of Southern States and prevent Native Americans and slaves from voting. To explain, delegates from Northern States with tiny populations of slaves and Natives were afraid allowing those groups to vote would increase the political power of Southern States. One prospect some Founders feared was owners telling their slaves how to vote.
The Three-Fifths Compromise was the basis of the US Supreme Court’s horrendous 1857 Dredd Scott Decision. In Dred Scott, the Supremes ruled that the Constitution does not grant rights to non-white people. Fortunately the 14th Amendment overturned both Dred Scott and the Three-Fifths Compromise by recognizing “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” as citizens.
Furthermore, Section Three of Article II of the Constitution states: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.”
This section suppresses votes by giving an unelected body; the US Senate, legislative power. It also dilutes the power of individual voters by giving states and state governments more political power. Fortunately, the 17th Amendment repeals this section and created an elected U.S. Senate.
Similarly, Section One of Article II of the Constitution takes the right to elect the president away from voters and gives it to an unelected body, the Electoral College. Section One of Article 2 is why Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) won the 2016 presidential election while losing the popular vote.
A final voter suppression measure in the Constitution is Article V which provides two ways of Amending the Constitution. First, Congress can propose amendments that three-fourth states of state legislatures must pass. Second, two-thirds of state legislatures can call a Second Constitution.
I consider both provisions voter suppression, because they deny citizens the right to amend the Constitution by a popular vote.
Hence, you can argue the Original US Constitution was an exercise in Voter Suppression.
The Corrupt Bargain of 1824
1824 was the first year that ordinary Americans (mostly white males) could vote for presidential electors. Unfortunately, the political elite tried to suppress those votes with a sleazy backroom political deal in the same year.
The antebellum elites became horrified when a majority of the popular voters chose gruff frontiersman Andrew Jackson (R-Tennessee) over aristocratic candidates such as John Quincy Adams (R-Massachusetts) and Henry Clay (R-Kentucky). However, Jackson did not win enough votes to become president.
To explain, Jackson won just 99 out of 261 Electoral College Votes. That threw the election into the U.S. House of Representatives. That enabled Clay, the Speaker of the House, to block Jackson’s election by giving his votes to Adams.
Adams, the son of a president, became President. Cynics called the arrangement the Corrupt Bargain because Adams named Clay US Secretary of State. In 1824, they saw Secretary of State as more prestigious than Speaker of the House. The Corrupt Bargain was voter suppression because it denied the popular vote.
The Corrupt Bargain offers an interesting lesson to modern Voter Suppression victims. Jackson voters could overturn the Corrupt Bargain by building a new political institution.
The institution was the Democratic Party, the first mass political party. The centralized national Democratic Party easily beat Adams in the 1828 presidential election and put Jackson in the White House to the elite’s horror. In the White House, Old Hickory dismantled the elite’s political system and replaced it with a populist government.
Hence, history shows that voter suppression often fails in the long run because victims find ways around it. Therefore, history shows 21st Century America’s nonwhite majority will build new political mechanisms that will overcome the Republican Party’s white minority rule.
Conversely, the Corrupt Bargain shows the old elite will not abandon its power without a dirty fight. Yet, the people can beat the elite with organization and excellent strategy.
Voter Suppression by Violence Bleeding Kansas
During the 1850s, the Southern Slave Power added a horrendous new twist to voter suppression. The twist was violent voter suppression, which put America on the path to Civil War.
Ironically, it was an effort to settle the growing North/South conflict over Western territories that drove some Southerners to violence. Victory in the Mexican War added enormous new territories to the United States.
The Mexican War’s architect President James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) expected the new territories to be evenly divided between slave and free states. The California Gold Rush, however, lured enormous numbers of people to California. Consequently, California entered the Union as a free state in 1850.
Southerners realized most of the new territories would become Free States that could gain enough power in Congress to ban slavery. After 1850, some Southerners began serious talk of secession as divisions in the country grew. Politicians’ first effort to appease Southerners, the Compromise of 1850, made things worse by inflaming antislavery passions.
One ambitious politician US Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois) offered a solution. Douglas’s solution to the growing conflict over new territories was popular sovereignty. Under popular sovereignty voters decided whether a potential state was slave or free.
Predictably, some Southerners were resistant to popular sovereignty because people could vote to abolish slavery. However, Douglas pushed ahead with a compromise scheme that could line his own pockets.
Douglas proposed that residents of two territories Kansas and Nebraska vote to allow slavery. Kansas and Nebraska were important because the probable routes for a transcontinental railroad ran through them.
Douglas thought he could make money from a transcontinental railroad because its probable eastern terminus was Chicago, the rail center of the Midwest. Douglas owned enormous amounts of Chicago real estate.
Congress and President Franklin Pierce (D-New Hampshire) made Douglas’s scheme reality with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Act gave Kansas and Nebraska settlers the right to vote on the slavery question.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act angered many Northerners because it repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Missouri Compromise was an informal agreement that banned slavery in territories north of the 36th parallel such as Kansas.
The Kansas-Nebraska led to voter suppression when some Southern politicians realized they could gain control of the strategic territory of Kansas and the land route to California’s gold fields by rigging territorial elections. Conversely, the South lacked the population and economic resources to settle Kansas.
However, the South had plenty of violent unemployed men who loved to fight and use guns. Many of those men were veterans of the Mexican War.
Southern leaders such as Benjamin Stringfellow began organizing gangs of mercenaries and thugs called Border Ruffians. The Border Ruffians’ objective was to make Kansas a Slave State by suppressing the vote at gunpoint.
Antislavery Kansans who tried to vote could be beat, shot, and sometimes murdered. The Border Ruffians burned towns and farms. In fact, the Border Ruffians pioneered the violent tactics the Ku KLUX Klan and other racist thugs would use against blacks during Jim Crow.
Unlike Southern blacks, the antislavery Kansas settlers could fight back and they had powerful allies Back East. With the help of volunteers; such as John Brown, the antislavery settlers formed their own guerrilla army and struck back. Brown became infamous for hacking some pro-slavery Kansans to death with sabers.
The result was a vicious guerrilla war the press labeled Bleeding Kansas. Ultimately, the Border Ruffians’ violent voter suppression failed, but they disrupted efforts to settle Kansas and form a territory.
The lesson from we can learn from Bleeding Kansas is violent voter suppression only triggers more violence. Instead of accepting the violence, the other side responds with violence of its own.
Hence, the probable outcome of violent right-wing voter suppression efforts such as the 6 January 2021 right will be a left-wing counter attack. Had the January 6 rioters captured the Capitol, the probable outcome was fighting between rival right-wing and left-wing mobs. Bleeding Kansas shows violent voter suppression leads to chaos.
The Election of 1860, Voter Suppression that led to Civil War
The presidential election of 1860 featured one of the most widespread and successful examples of voter suppression in American history.
To explain, pro-slave politicians kept the winning candidate Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) off the ballot in at least 10 states. Instead, voters had a choice of Vice President John C. Breckinridge (D-Kentucky), Constitutional Unionist John Bell (?-Tennessee), and our old friend Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois).
There were two Democratic presidential candidates in 1860 because Democrats split into Northern and Southern factions. Ironically, the Northern Democrat Douglas was even more unpopular in the South than Lincoln. Bell represented the Constitutional Unionist Party, which was an attempt to rebrand the Whigs.
They kept Lincoln off the ballot to keep the antislavery Republican out of the White House. The plan backfired because Lincoln won almost every Northern and Western state. Old Abe went to the White House, and the South seceded leading to Civil War.
Voter Suppression in Reconstruction
Ironically, in the 1860s a wave of voter suppression targeted the group most associated with voter suppression today – Southern white men.
During Reconstruction, Radical Republicans used the military to seize control of Southern States and reorganize their political systems. The goal of this reorganization was to give ex-slaves; who would presumably vote Republican, political power.
Another objective of Reconstruction was to suppress the votes of ex-Confederates Southern White men who would presumably vote Democrat. One result of this suppression was terrorist violence against blacks by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was an organization of Confederate veterans formed to resist Reconstruction and punish blacks.
The Klan’s violence failed, but Southern Whites won when Democrats took control of the US House of Representatives in 1875 and began dismantling Reconstruction. However, Reconstruction did not end until the Compromise of 1877.
Voter Suppression and the Compromise of 1877
Ironically, a Republican attempt at voter suppression set the stage for Jim Crow a 90 year long Democratic voter suppression effort aimed at African Americans.
In the presidential election of 1876, Governor Samuel Tilden (D-Tilden) won a clear majority of the popular vote. Republicans, however, controlled the governments of three Southern States, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. With a little creativity, Republicans found enough votes to win those three states. Hence both Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes (R-Ohio) had around 184 Electoral College votes.
To avoid conflict, Republican and Democratic leaders met in secret and worked out a compromise. Under the Compromise of 1877, Democrats agreed not to contest Hayes’ election while Republicans agreed to pull out all federal troops out of the South. The result was Jim Crow, the longest and nastiest campaign of voter suppression in American history.
Jim Crow was a complex system of racist restriction and voter suppression that developed slowly over a 50 year period (roughly 1880-1930). Under Jim Crow, Southern racists used several clever strategies to strip blacks of the vote.
Poll taxes, disenfranchised both blacks and poor whites by requiring voters to pay a tax before casting a ballot. Politicians could use poll taxes to rig elections by paying the poll tax of their supporters.
In literacy tests voters had to read and answer a complex question. Literacy tests disenfranchised blacks who were illiterate because Southerners had excluded them from schools for generations. Like poll taxes, literacy tests could keep poor whites from voting.
One ugly aspect of literacy tests was that election officials who could skew the test to make sure only the right people (white Democrats or people who handed the official a $10 bill) voted. Around 11 states wrote literacy tests into their constitutions between 1890 and 1908.
Another feature vicious feature of Jim Crow was the Grandfather Clause which allowed men whose fathers or grandfathers voted before 1867. Since only whites voted during slavery, you get the picture.
Jim Crow was effective, by 1904, they had effectively eliminated blacks from the North Carolina voter rolls. In 1900, blacks accounted for 33% of North Carolina’s population or 630,207 people.
A final feature of Jim Crow masqueraded as “election reform.” The all-white Democratic Party Primary restricted the vote to whites. Since Democrats won almost all elections in the South, the winner of the all-white primary always won the general election.
There were many other Jim Crow tactics. Including new laws, state legislatures wrote when Courts struck down restrictive legislation as unconditional.
Jim Crow and the Filibuster
Republicans made one major effort to reverse Jim Crow. In 1890, the US House of Representatives passed the Federal Elections Bill, or Lodge Bill.
The Bill, written by US Representative Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Massachusetts) would have federalized state elections in the South. Under Lodge’s plan, federal officials backed by US marshals would have overseen elections to ensure black votes. In addition, the Lodge Bill would have put some elections under court supervision.
The Lodge Bill died in the US Senate when Southern Democrats and some Republicans used the filibuster to block its passage. When its supporters could not get enough votes to overturn the filibuster, the bill died. The Lodge Bill was the last major federal voting rights action until the 1960s.
The failure of the Lodge Bill shows why many African Americans and progressives are so eager to kill the filibuster today. These people fear Senate Republicans will use the filibuster to block new voting rights legislation.
Voter Suppression Returns
By the early 21st Century, most Americans assumed voter suppression had ended during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
Two decades later, voter suppression made a comeback as Republicans increasingly saw it as the only way to win elections. Incredibly, the Brennan Center counted 361 bills its experts classified as voter suppression measures in 47 state legislatures on 24 March 2021. The number of voter suppression bills in state legislatures grew from 253 on 19 February 2021, a 43% increase in a month.
Modern voter suppression efforts include ID laws, voter roll purges, registration restrictions, efforts to close polling places, and attacks on early voting. Voter suppression efforts made a comeback after the US Supreme Court struck down many provisions of the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby County Decision.
Conversely, there were 843 bills proposing voting rights expansion in 47 state legislatures on 24 March 2021, the Brennan Center estimates. Moreover, a federal law that could override many of the voter suppression efforts; the For the People Act, is moving through Congress.
Trump has made voter suppression an article of faith for Republicans, which means the issue will stay with us for the foreseeable future. Frighteningly, some radical Trump supporters attempted a violent suppression effort at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 by trying to stop Congress’s confirmation of Joe Biden’s election as president. Thus, voter suppression is one of the main issues in American politics.
History, however, shows voter suppression efforts often fail or backfire. Thus, today’s vote suppressors had better careful what they wish for. Their voter suppression efforts could hurt the people they supposedly protect.