“If you count the legal votes, I easily win.” These were the words of President Donald Trump from the White House briefing room last night, two days after the U.S. election. His message followed the news that his opponent, former vice-president Joseph Biden, was taking the lead in the vote count in the states of Pennsylvania and Georgia, two battlegrounds that will determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
As an American historian and citizen watching the election from British Columbia, nothing has caused me more distress this election cycle than Trump’s repeated attacks on democracy itself, and his party’s willingness to go along with his attacks. When the Democratic primary wound to a close this spring, and it became clear that Biden would win the nomination, pitting Trump against the candidate he most feared because polling suggested he would lose the match-up, Trump turned to attacking the democratic process as his primary strategy for victory.
But as an American historian, I shouldn’t have been surprised. We have a term for this strategy. It’s called Jim Crow.
The COVID-19 pandemic had prompted states to expand mail-in voting, to protect vulnerable citizens from the risk of infection at the polls, and to guarantee that every qualified voter could exercise the franchise. Trump reacted by attacking mail-in voting as fraudulent. As he and the Republican party were well aware, making voting more accessible was likely to lead to increased voting by Democrats. Although study after study has shown that there is almost no voter fraud in the U.S., Republicans have long used the straw man of voter fraud to impose voting restrictions that have a disproportionate impact on poor voters and people of colour, populations that disproportionately vote Democratic.
Since the nation’s founding, white supremacists have been attacking the democratic process by making the votes of people of colour “illegal.” When the U.S. was first established, voting was restricted in most states by gender and property: people could vote if they were male and if they possessed a certain amount of wealth. (In New Jersey, whether by design or exception, voting wasn’t restricted by gender and some wealthy widows initially had the right to vote.)
In the early 19th century, new states entering the union permitted voting without property restrictions, and older states began eliminating their property restrictions. This created a challenge for white supremacists. Property restrictions had been successful at preventing Black men from voting since most were too poor to qualify. Some free Black men in the North could vote, but they were relatively few in number. The elimination of property restrictions prompted white supremacists to write new laws making it illegal for Black men to vote. This happened in Pennsylvania in 1838, when a new state constitution restricted the franchise to “white freemen” only.
The struggle to make Black votes “illegal” intensified after the Civil War emancipated four million African Americans, whose status as chattel meant they had no right to vote under slavery. In 1870, the U.S. ratified the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing African American men the right to vote throughout the country. Briefly, during the period known as Reconstruction, African American men were elected to local, state and federal offices in the Southern states, where they lived in large numbers. Hiram Revels became the first African American senator in 1870 when he was appointed to represent Mississippi. He was followed in 1875 by Blanche Bruce, the first African American elected to the Senate.
White supremacists pushed back by building the system of legal restrictions on people of colour that is known colloquially as “Jim Crow.” Southern states made voting by Black men illegal by instituting “grandfather clauses” (you could vote if your grandfather had), poll taxes, and so-called literacy tests (these were not truly tests, but thin excuses to exclude voters). While Jim Crow is typically associated with African Americans, systems of segregation and restrictions on the franchise extended to Native Americans and Asian Americans as well, whose voting rights were not secured until the 1940s and 1950s respectively.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended Jim Crow measures that made it illegal for people of colour to vote and put into place federal oversight of voting in states that had historically disenfranchised Black voters. This federal oversight remained in effect until it was struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. Which brings us to today.
When Trump supporters crowd outside the offices where votes are being counted in Detroit and in Philadelphia, two cities with large Black populations, shouting “stop the illegal vote,” their attacks on the democratic process should not come as a surprise. Efforts to define the votes of people of colour as “illegal” have been taking place in the country since its founding. Democracy has never been whole-heartedly embraced by the white majority in U.S. history.