Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Voting violence

By Claude Fischer

black voter registration 1960

One of the simmering issues of the political summer is the court battle over voter identification laws in many Republican-governed states. Requirements that voters present photo IDs, such as drivers’ licenses, and other constraints, such as curtailing early voting, promise to reduce the number of poor, elderly, and minority voters in those states. One of the hardest tasks supporters of the new restrictions have is to keep a straight face when claiming that these changes have nothing to do with partisan politics, with reducing Democratic votes.

black voter registration 1960

No doubt, some trickery comes from both sides – for example, encouraging college students to register at school or at home depending on where their votes will make the most difference, or ignoring the people who vote twice because they have residences in two states. One’s position on the ID debate should depend on whether your principle is “better ten legitimate voters disenfranchised than one illegitimate voter casting a ballot” or vice-versa. But people’s actual positions depend on whose voters are being turned away.

As this struggle unfolds, it recalls an old American tradition of voting fraud, voting suppression, and voting violence.


American democracy has been marked by centuries of conflict over who should vote – originally only men, property-holders, etc. – and how to regulate voting. The mid-nineteenth century was a period of heavy political participation (although only by white men) and one of considerable fraud of various kinds, not just tactics like political machines marching immigrants to the polls, but even more directly the buying of votes.

Voting was cleaned up (somewhat) around a century ago. In the North, native-born, middle-class reformers wanted not honest government but also wanted to undercut the voting power of foreign-born, working-class men. To a great extent, they succeeded. The various Progressive rules and regulations, such as early registration and non-partisan elections, cut working-class participation sharply. So did finding ways to curtail vote-buying, mainly the secret ballot. (See a short history of voting is in this column.) In the post-Civil War South, of course, white officials and vigilantes used every device from bureaucratic slow-stepping to mass murder to drive and keep blacks off the voter rolls.

noose as warning, 1939

Violence of some kind often accompanied American elections. Here is a summary by historian Peter Argersinger about just the late nineteenth-century:

The United States Marshal for Philadelphia admitted in 1881 that fraudulent voting and violence were so endemic in that city that “Never an election goes by without a riot” and in some wards “scarcely an election goes by without somebody being killed.” A Cincinnati newspaper reported as a quiet election one in which only eight people were killed. In many cities riots were often orchestrated to drive people away from the polls, with protection provided for those carrying the “right” party ticket. A Midwest newspaper noted in 1884 that nearly everywhere in America voting was “an arduous task attended by . . . personal danger. Every peaceable man and every household dread the approach of election day.”


Thankfully, the shenanigans around voting these days are far more peaceable, lawsuits rather than fists or guns. (Although: Recall the storming of the Florida recount office by Bush staffers in 2000.) Still, I worry about a scenario something like this:

In November, in a long line in a school gym in a black precinct in, say, Philadelphia, an elderly black woman, dressed in her church-going outfit and gloves, steps up to get her ballot. Two white poll-watchers from the GOP warn the poll-workers to check the woman’s photo ID. Surprised and bewildered, the woman fumbles around in her purse and then says that she never drove, has no license, and has nothing with her picture on it. As the poll-workers start to send her away, young people behind her speak up, loudly, angrily. Shouting starts between the poll-watchers and voters in line. A police officer rushes in to settle things down, but  someone shoves someone and . . .  A full-blown street riot begins.

It would be sad. It would be “traditional.” It would be avoidable.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.