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A short history of white people rigging elections

If Trump supporters really loved law and order, they wouldn’t be going around calling the election “rigged.”

A cartoon from Harper’s in 1876, showing a bayonet (representing the federal government) impaling a snake labeled with “Ku Klux Klan” and “White League,” two white-supremacist groups engaging in terrorism and election violence.
A cartoon from Harper’s in 1876, showing a bayonet (representing the federal government) impaling a snake labeled with “Ku Klux Klan” and “White League,” two white-supremacist groups engaging in terrorism and election violence.
Thomas Nast via Getty

Three weeks before Election Day, a major party presidential candidate is openly questioning the legitimacy of the results, saying there’s a conspiracy to steal the election from him. And it’s not clear he or his supporters will go gently.

One member of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s inner circle, Roger Stone, has “predicted” (which is to say, encouraged) “widespread civil disobedience” if Trump loses the election — a situation that he once described, somewhat nonsensically, as a “bloodbath” without violence. Another ally, Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County — a sworn law enforcement officer himself — has adopted the slogan, “It’s pitchforks and torches time.”

Some followers are openly plotting to engage in voter intimidation on Election Day (saying they won’t do anything illegal but that they’ll get “right up behind” suspicious-looking voters — which, in fact, would be illegal). Others are openly endorsing the idea of a coup.

The irony, of course, is that this is the candidate who claims to be running on a platform of “law and order.” And his followers are the ones loudly cheering Blue Lives Matter at rallies, while characterizing the Black Lives Matter movement as “hateful” (in the words of Clarke, who is himself black). They’re less concerned about whether police are too quick to use force against black residents than about whether criticizing police practices emboldens criminals to take out cops.

Trump’s most devoted fans — the people currently voicing existential doubts about the legitimacy of American government — are the same ones who, in other contexts, are loudly proclaiming their faith in American values. They’re the ones attacking Colin Kaepernick as unpatriotic for refusing to stand during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and systemic racism.

In the context of the national debate over race and policing in America — a debate that’s partly a political fight and partly a culture war — Trumpists believe that American law and American institutions demand loyalty and obedience above all, that it is un-American to question their authority or their behavior.

But in the context of the 2016 presidential election, they don’t see any obligation to respect American institutions — they treat the electoral system with at least as much suspicion and preemptive disrespect as Black Lives Matter activists treat the police force.

The bottom line, it appears, is that the “law and order” patriots don’t actually think legitimacy is inherent in American laws and government. It’s dependent on whether white people want to see it as legitimate or not.

When government acts in accordance with their desires — when it helps them, and especially acts against nonwhites — “rule of law” and “law and order” become universal values, and nonwhites are being justifiably punished for violating them. But when government acts to protect nonwhite Americans, it’s seen as a reason to question the legitimacy of the government itself.

It’s not really about law. It’s about power. And in America, that power has historically been white supremacy.

The most ubiquitous voter fraud in US history was an attempt to disenfranchise black Americans

Let’s be clear: Rigged elections have happened in American history.

They’re incredibly rare, and in fact near impossible, in 2016, which makes bringing up fears of a “rigged election” this year a boogeyman at best and dangerous at worst. But at times in America, they’ve been quite common.

But the people who’ve most often rigged elections aren’t liberal elites acting in cahoots with nonwhite shock troops — they’re white supremacists trying to maintain white power in the face of a diverse electorate.

The time and place in American history during which elections, at least in the federal government, were most likely to be contested wasn’t that of the urban political machine of, say, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (associated with the modern Democratic Party). It was after the Civil War, in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction South.

And it was the 19th-century Democrats — the conservative, post-Confederate, anti-Reconstruction and anti-black party — most often doing the rigging, and the integrated, pro–black advancement Republican Party (a generation after Lincoln) most often calling them out.

Before the Civil War, an average of only three congressional elections were challenged each cycle; after 1900, the average was four (and there were more seats in Congress to challenge). Between 1861 and 1899, though, an average of 15 congressional elections were challenged every cycle; on a few occasions, 10 percent of all members of Congress faced formal challenges.

Elections in the South were disproportionately likely to be challenged, especially after 1877 (when federal troops pulled out of the last of the Southern states, signaling the end of Reconstruction and allowing white Southerners to retake the reins of local political power). In particular, congressional districts with a large black population were the most likely to see the results of their elections challenged — usually because of accusations of widespread voter intimidation and fraud.

When House elections got challenged, it generally wasn’t because the losing candidate accused black voters of engaging in the fraud and intimidation. Usually an election got challenged because the candidate who lost the official vote for a House seat argued that black voters were being systematically disenfranchised by white Democrats, both by outright voter fraud on Election Day and by campaigns of intimidation that dissuaded Republicans (especially black Republicans) from even making it to the polls. And often, a congressional panel including both Democrats and Republicans agreed that the election had been rigged.

An 1867 illustration from Harper's shows black men exercising their right to vote in the South (with a suspicious-looking election official in the background).
An 1867 illustration from Harper's shows black men exercising their right to vote in the South (with a suspicious-looking election official in the background).
Hulton Archive via Getty

As Republican Sen. Timothy Howe of Wisconsin put it in 1875, “They could cheat Republicans in three ways: First, by receiving Democratic votes from illegal voters; second, by refusing Republican votes from legal voters; third, by allowing turbulence and tumult to deter Republicans from offering their votes. That they did cheat by each of those methods has been testified not only by scores but by thousands of voters.”

Put that way, it sounds like simple hard-nosed politics: Of course a party would want to maximize its own votes and minimize the other side’s. In practice, of course, the Democrats were running on a platform of explicit white supremacy, and the elections that got rigged were the ones in which black people were most likely to be voting.

Tactics included folding multiple ballots inside a single Democratic ballot, so that a voter could stuff the ballot box without noticing, and diluted the will of the actual black citizens trying to vote (the overwhelming majority of whom supported Republicans, since white Democrats often didn’t even want black people joining their party). And when white officials simply refused to allow black citizens to register to vote, they never even got a chance to find out which party they’d vote for anyway.

The problem with contesting elections, though, is that it was much easier for the congressional panel to know when people had been turned away from the polls, or when holes had been drilled in ballot boxes, than it was for them to know when people had simply been scared out of trying to vote at all.

Because while the current strain of “law and order” politics sees vigilante justice as a tool to protect the integrity of elections, in the 19th century, electoral violence — and even murder — was straightforwardly accepted as a way to keep black citizens from voting, and potentially tipping the election against white supremacist candidates.

America’s ugly and near-forgotten history of widespread electoral violence

During the era of the rigged election, voting was a dangerous act. It could be lethal.

This chart compiles reports of violence against black citizens (and white Republicans) filed by the South Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau in the first three years of Reconstruction. But the pattern it shows — that violence intensified around elections — would be true nearly anywhere in the South, and at any time during and immediately after Reconstruction.

There are many ways to use violence to intimidate voters. There was the physical blocking of polling places by armed groups, as happened in several precincts in a contested South Carolina election in 1880. There was beating of black voters in the weeks before the election in an attempt to scare them out of trying to vote, as was ubiquitous (for example) in Louisiana. There were assassinations of local Republican politicians — black and white alike — as happened in Alabama in 1875.

Often, the violence was conducted by organized clubs like the Knights of the White Camellia — designed not to engage in wanton racial terrorism, like the Ku Klux Klan, but specifically to suppress the Republican vote. “Old men and young men, married and single, even the boys have engaged in what is called ‘the great work of redeeming the country,’” one South Carolina newspaper wrote in 1876.

screencap terrorism video Joe Posner/Vox

Sometimes intimidation worked. When up to 200 black Louisianans were killed in the “Opelousas massacre” of September 1868 (at the end of a chain of events that started with the beating of a white teacher for registering black voters), Ulysses S. Grant’s reelection campaign pulled out of Louisiana and Georgia entirely.

Sometimes it didn’t, and the results were bloody. When black Americans mobilized to vote en masse in Eufaula, Alabama, in 1874, white terrorists shot into the unarmed crowd, killing seven people and wounding dozens.

Even winning an election didn’t guarantee safety from violence. Local elections in Louisiana in 1872 were so contested and fraud-riddled that black residents of Colfax had to station themselves outside the courthouse to protect the Republican county judge and sheriff from being forcibly unseated by their Democratic opponents. Eventually, a white insurgent group of 300 took the whole courthouse by force, and 100 black citizens were killed.

This is the core truth of Reconstruction violence: It wasn’t just against the black vote but against the state. It was a declaration that the governments in which black people voted were illegitimate — justifying them being replaced by force (as in Colfax or in the Louisiana legislature). Often, it meant that particular elected officials were targeted — state actors threatened in the service of restoring legitimate government.

The Eufaula massacre of 1874 was followed by the murder by a white mob of the son of a local judge — who was a “scalawag,” a Southerner who took part in the Reconstruction government. The judge fled the state. (The mob also burned a ballot box.) In Mississippi in that same year, white militants drove a county sheriff out of the state in advance of the election, then murdered, among others, a black state legislator.)

These acts of white violence were usually minimized at the time: death counts deflated, communities waved off as “stable” when an act of intimidation worked.

This history is important to recognize that voter fraud and electoral violence are a part of American history. And traditionally, they have usually both been on the same side: the same people intimidating nonwhite Americans out of casting a ballot were those who engaged in fraud to make sure the “right” person won.

Nonwhite Americans are the ones who are accused of criminality and wanting to disrupt the peace

Even as all this violence against black Americans exercising their newly established right to vote was going on, white supremacists were laying the groundwork for the modern idea of black criminality — saying that the real threat to democracy and social order was black lawlessness.

The Colfax massacre was commemorated as the “Colfax riot.” Before the massacre, white newspapers had spread lies about black atrocities; after the massacre, a commemorative plaque on the site celebrated the “end of carpetbag misrule.”

This cartoon is a white Democrat’s look at the 1872 election in Louisiana: black Americans as slavish accessories to a monarchical (therefore illegitimate) federal government.
This cartoon is a white Democrat’s look at the 1872 election in Louisiana: black Americans as slavish accessories to a monarchical (therefore illegitimate) federal government.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty

“White backlash to black progress — from Reconstruction to the civil rights movement — is a potent part of our past,” Jamelle Bouie wrote earlier this month. “And whenever it strikes, black voters and black voting are always the first target.” Because in the eyes of whites, black Americans simply weren’t capable of carrying the weight of democracy. White supremacists justified their violations of the rule of law by implying that black Americans simply, innately, didn’t care about law or order at all.

Democrats and their newspapers weren’t usually concerned about white attacks on black Republicans. But when a black Democrat was beaten by a group of black Republicans in 1876, newspapers reacted in alarm — an act of 19th-century concern trolling that foreshadowed current debates about “black-on-black crime” and the modern idea that nonwhite Democrats are simply a slavish mob.

White crime was seen as the result of social circumstance (a consequence of poverty, or an immigrant trait that someone should be given the chance to assimilate out of), and black crime was accepted as the cause of other black social problems. That paradigm is still pretty widespread.

It’s the reason the Black Lives Matter movement is so often accused (falsely) of not caring about black-on-black crime. It’s also the reason that, in any individual case of an officer killing a black American, suspicion tends to fall on the victim — and any evidence of a criminal act (like mere drug possession or use) is treated as a justification for the death.

Often, criticizing the police is seen as a threat to public safety; this is the heart of the “war on cops” narrative. It’s a threat to public order to reject the legitimate authority of government institutions. At least when it’s not white people doing it.

Who are the actual vigilantes in contemporary America?

To state the obvious, American race relations have changed in the past 150 years. In particular, they’re not just white and black. But the same dynamic — of a hyped nonwhite threat versus an ignored white threat — has shaped understanding of Latinos, and particularly immigrants, in America.

In theory, the entire debate over immigration (which is often reduced to unauthorized immigration) is about the “rule of law.” Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform say it would undermine the rule of law to allow people who lived in the US without authorization to become legal residents or citizens.

A huge part of anti-immigrant anxiety is fear of immigrant criminality. Donald Trump rose to prominence by characterizing unauthorized immigrants as violent criminals and appearing at campaign rallies with people whose children were murdered by unauthorized immigrants. At his convention over the summer, his speaker lineup included a roster of victims, or relatives of victims, of crimes committed by immigrants. Immigrants are seen as a threat to both personal safety and public safety: a “Trojan horse” waiting to happen, people who don’t respect “our laws.”

If it were that simple, it would be straightforward: a defense of American institutions against people who have shown a willingness to ignore them. But anti-immigrant rhetoric isn’t pro-government. To the contrary. At best, it sees government as unwilling to protect the rule of law; at worst, it assumes the government is actively colluding to undermine it.

Volunteers with the Minuteman Project, 2005.
Volunteers with the Minuteman Project, 2005.
Scott Olson/Getty

In fact, the 21st-century anti-immigrant movement had its own vigilante movement: the Minuteman Project, in which volunteers sat at the US/Mexican border, often armed, attempting to catch unauthorized border crossers. (One woman associated with the Minuteman movement, Shawna Forde, is currently on death row, after being convicted of invading the home of a Latino family and murdering the father and 9-year-old daughter. According to prosecutors, she planned to rob the family and use the money to fund her organization, Minuteman American Defense.)

The rule of law doesn’t mean a faith in legal institutions. It means the assumption that institutions will use law as a tool against appropriate people. And just as it did in the 19th century, these dynamics are never more obvious than during election season.

In 2008, when two members of the New Black Panther Party — one of whom was a registered election monitor — stood outside a Philadelphia polling place, gaining coverage prominently on Fox News, uproar was so serious that the Obama administration was attacked for not pursuing a formal civil rights inquiry into the suppression of white votes.

There will almost certainly be people with guns standing outside heavily nonwhite polling places on Election Day. Many of them think of the New Black Panther Party (or Black Lives Matter more broadly) as a threat to democracy, and themselves as its defenders.

The only difference is the race of the threatened.

Who is America for?

When people both champion “law and order” as a slogan and undermine it by challenging the legitimacy of institutions in practice, the underlying constant is racial resentment. But David Duke aside, most of them don’t see themselves as engaging in a race war.

Their understanding of the world — their “deep story” — is that government, and American social elites, is in collusion with nonwhite voters to disenfranchise whites. It’s a 21st-century iteration of Reconstruction politics, when post-Confederates and Southern Democrats felt the federal government was trying to force racial equality on them and undermine their way of life.

It’s a zero-sum view of government: the idea that a government has to pick winners and losers, and the progress of one group has to come at the expense of another.

In theory, nothing could be further from the way American government and society are supposed to work. American national identity is grounded in principles like the rule of law, more than in any particular idea of what kinds of people are American. In theory, American government exists to make sure that universal rights are universally distributed.

In practice, though, America has picked winners and losers all the time. (It’s just that white Americans have nearly always been the chosen winners.) It’s been extremely bad at doing the things it promised in its founding documents to do. This is, as much as anything, the fundamental story of American history: the conflict between its ideals of universalism and a reality that falls short.

Two men during a march after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
Two men during a march after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty

Americans — each American — get to decide which they believe in more. They can choose to believe that America’s universal ideals are worth striving for, and try to expand their practical reach. (Indeed, this is how most of the major social movements of American history have worked, by challenging American elites to live up to their ideals.)

Or they can choose to believe that patronage is the way of the world: that government can’t help everyone and that the most important thing is to make sure they and their group are the ones getting help.

In essence, each American gets to decide whether she thinks American ideals — things like the rule of law and the legitimacy of elections — ought to be trusted in all cases, or whether their legitimacy is dependent on which side wins.

CORRECTION: This article originally misidentified Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley.

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