Monday, September 17, 2012

Voter Repression: An Old American Pastime

Our society will always remain an unstable and explosive compound
as long as political power is vested in the masses and economic
power in the classes. Either the plutocracy will buy up the   
democracy or the democracy will vote away the plutocracy

The real issue at stake in the current wave of voter suppression was thus cogently captured by by distinguished economist Irving Fisher on the eve of the country's Second Gilded Age--more popularly known as the "Jazz Age," the "Era of Wonderful Nonsense," or the "Roaring Twenties." During that decade, "the classes" were clearly in the driver's seat and they drove the economy into total collapse. Beginning in the mid-1930s through the 1960s, it seemed that "the masses" were really making headway, but over the last thirty years, "the classes" have steadily regained control. On the eve of one of the most crucial elections in history, there is a clear and present danger that the plutocracy will achieve the goal set forth by John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court" "The people who own the country ought to run it." Maybe for good and all!

Actually, the efforts of "the classes"  to subvert or eliminate the political power of "the masses" even antedate the formation of the Republic itself.  Each of the thirteen colonies restricted suffrage to white, male, property holders, 
and usually required ownership of more property to vote for members of the upper house of the legislature. The "white" and "male" part prevailed until well into the twentieth century, and it required protracted and hard-fought  struggles by the property-less, women, non-whites, and others to eliminate. Before the Constitution prohibited "religious tests" for voting, most colonies forbade voting by Catholics, Quakers, Jews, and other non-Protestants, even after becoming "states." The same revolutionaries who condemned "no taxation without representation" saw no contradiction in maintaining property qualifications for voting. Voting in federal elections under the new Constitution was limited to those whom each individual state permitted to vote in elections for the least populous house of the state legislature. The right to vote is still the prerogative of individual states, except for the 15th Amendment (race, color, or previous condition of servitude), the 19th (sex), the 24th (no poll tax), the 26th (age),
and state laws that the federal courts rule unconstitutional. 

The poll tax, which lasted in some southern states until the 1960s, was a "double whammy," since it was a form of property qualifications as well as racial discrimination. Prior to the ratification of the 26th  amendment, the age limit for voting ranged from 16 to 25 among the several states. Women could vote in several, mostly western, states as early as the 1870s. Vesting the determination of voting rights in the individual states was one of the many compromises struck by "the founders" in order to achieve ratification. As we shall see later, that provision allowed several southern states to deny the voting rights of African Americans, long after the enactment of the 15th amendment. It also allowed states to deny the franchise to other racial minorities, especially Asians Native Americans. It was not until the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all Native, Asian, and African Americans achieved full voting rights everywhere in the United States. 

The fight to secure voting rights, even for white males with little or no property, took place in each individual state during the first half of the nineteenth century. Many newly admitted states prohibited property qualifications for white males. In Wisconsin, for example, the right to vote was extended even to immigrants who had lived in the state for one year and filed their Declaration Of Intention to become citizens. Tens of thousands of white male immigrants continued to vote for the rest of their lives without ever changing their citizenship status. That provision in the state constitution was finally nullified by constitutional amendment in 1907. Meanwhile,of course, women, blacks, and Indians were denied the same right for decades. Although African Americans were guaranteed voting rights in the 1848 constitution, the privilege was subject to referendum by white male voters (including resident aliens), who defeated it in 1857 and 1865. On petition by black Milwaukeeans in the latter year, the state supreme court ruled that they had been granted suffrage in 1848. Challenges to blacks voting continued into the 1960s, however. As late as 1912, a referendum on woman suffrage in Wisconsin, failed by more than two to one (all white males, of course, but at least they had to be citizens by now). Incredibly enough, Wisconsin barely edged out Illinois to become the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920. Most southern states retained property qualifications, even for white males, until Reconstruction, and the "Redeemers," who regained power after 1877 did their best to reinstate them both by poll taxes that disenfranchised large numbers of "poor whites," as well as almost all blacks by World War I.

In one of the most bitter ironies in the nation's history (and one of the biggest coups for the "classes" who wanted to retain the status quo in voting rights), the adoption by Congress of what became the 15th Amendment, proved to be a pyrrhic victory at  best, for both women and African Americans. Woman suffrage was first proposed at the Seneca Falls, New York convention of 1848. Although most of the delegates were men, the small male contingent included Frederick Douglass, who made a strong appeal for extending the franchise to both women and African Americans. By the time that Congress debated the issue in 1869, Douglass, other black leaders, and their "Radical Republican" allies had concluded that their cause would not succeed if it were tied to the less popular issue of female suffrage. Douglass himself sealed the fate of woman suffrage by proclaiming that "The Hour Belongs to the Negro." Several prominent women, especially in the South, acquiesced in that judgment, and eventually formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, which concentrated on achieving victory on a state by state basis (remember the states still have the final say in voting requirements, except for the instances noted earlier). Others, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and the National Woman Suffrage Association, refused to support the 15th amendment unless it included woman suffrage. In a classic case of "politics makes strange bedfellows," some even allied with Southern racists by arguing that female votes could negate those of black males.They continued to advocate for the adoption of a woman suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but did not achieve final victory until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Even then, the amendment only achieved the necessary number of states when a Tennessee legislator, who personally opposed women voting, switched his support, allegedly because he had promised his mother on her death bed that he would do so. As already noted, several western states had already approved statewide universal suffrage, supposedly in order to attract female settlers. It didn't take Southern racists long to undermine black suffrage,as we shall see below.


At the risk of resorting to the use of "irony" toO often, I cannot resist recounting how the time-tested strategy of playing women and African Americans off against one another backfired during the debate over what became the Equal Rights Act of 1964. In a last-ditch attempt to defeat the measure, one of Congress's most rabid racist/sexists--Howard W.Smith of Virginia, chair of the House Rules Committee--included women's rights in the mix, only to see sweeping rights for both blacks and women achieve passage. It is well beyond even "delicious  irony" to credit Smith with being the unwilling "godfather" or "mid-wife" of the Equal Rights Law of 1964.

Nor did it take Southern racists long to emasculate the 15th Amendment itself by poll taxes and other devices. The populist movement of the 1880s and 90s threatened to unite blacks and poor whites in a class-based coalition against the "New South" alliance of planters and industrialists, who regained control in most Southern states after the "Great Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction. The "Redeemers" told blacks that they would protect them against the racism of the "poor whites," and told the latter that, no matter how poor their economic situation, they were WHITE, AND THAT IS THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTED. (How badly off can you be if your only claim to superiority is a deficit of  malanin in your skin.) On economic grounds, blacks and "poor whites were potentially natural allies; on racial grounds, they were natural enemies. In several southern states during the last decades of the 19th century, some Populist whites managed to overcome their ingrained racism by trying to make common cause with blacks, and nearly succeeded in winning control of several state governments. When they lost, they blamed blacks for failing to turn out in sufficient numbers, or for succumbing to the promises of protection urged by the Conservatives. For their part, many of the latter heaved a sigh of relief, coupled with the fear that, the next time, the Populist coalition might really succeed. In the end, both sets of whites blamed blacks and agreed on disenfranchisement, even if that meant, as it did in several states, the purging of large numbers of "poor whites" as well.  This disenfranchisement of blacks and poor white voters occurred during what passed for the "Progressive Era" in most southern states. Many "progressives" were sincerely convinced that "meaningful reform" of any sort was only possible with a "purified" electorate and a "separate but equal" society. Their weapons of choice included the poll tax (planters often paid the tax for their sharecroppers, provided that they vote the "right way.") The same was true of the literacy test, while the "grandfather clause" automatically eliminated all blacks and lots of propertyless whites. My personal favorite is the "eight ballot box system," in which voters had to deposit eight separate ballots into eight separate boxes in the "correct" order, or have their vote invalidated. Of course, white poll watchers helpfully guided "desirable" voters through the maze, while "undesirables" had to fend for themselves. Above all, they resorted to VIOLENCE, as typified by the resurgence of the Ku Klan Klan and similar vigilante groups. Lynching became the ultimate discouragement for would-be black voters.

The majority of Americans outside the Southern states either agreed or looked the other way. Not until blacks began the "Great Migration" to Northern cities did there seem any reason to do otherwise. Black migrants competed for jobs and housing with the "New Immigrants," from southern and eastern Europe and East Asia. Northern businesses imported black strikebreakers replace white workers, who were mostly immigrants and their children. They actually who played a role similar to that of  "poor whites"in the South. Pitting ethnic groups against blacks and other ethnic groups and "hiring the survivors" became commonplace. The only difference was that Northerners told blacks and immigrants to "go as high as you can, but don't come any closer, while Southerners said "come as close as you like, but don't try to go any higher "  Plessy v. Ferguson and "Birth of a Nation" were powerful palliatives for white Northerners.

By the same token, many "good government progressives" in the rest of the country just as sincerely believed that "reform" of any kind depended upon preventing or curtailing the potential political power of the lower social orders in general. These efforts were part and parcel of the drive to enact the highly discriminatory National Origins Quota System of immigration restriction, which remained in effect from the 1920s into the 1960s. There were occasional attempts to impose literacy tests or property qualifications, but they were usually defeated by lawmakers representing ethnic working-class wards, aided by others who rejected the malicious intent behind the proposals. Threatening workers with loss of their jobs unless their employer's candidates were triumphant was more widespread. Much more successful were enacting highly restrictive naturalization, residency, and registration laws. Gerrymandering electoral districts, either by segregating ethnic working class voters in a few districts or disbursing them in small numbers throughout the entire city was also effective, as were limiting voting hours and making polling places difficult to reach. More subtle, but perhaps more popular, were using the "short ballot"  and less frequent elections to eliminate the number of elective offices and patronage jobs available,and replacing patronage positions with appointive and civil service ones. The change from mayor/city council governance with city manager or commission forms was also a frequent tactic. The traditional council was broadly representative of all of the city's various ethnic, class and partisan divisions, while the much smaller number of commissioners were elected city-wide and favored candidates with enough resources and positions of authority to do so. Not surprisingly, politicians with ethnic working constituencies, and others sympathetic to their world-view, vigorously opposed these measures and enjoyed a fair measure of success. The momentum, however, was usually in favor of those who wanted the number-and  diversity of voters kept to a minimum. Not surprisingly, the one overriding outcome was a sharp decline in voter participation and turnout, especially among the ethnic, working-classes.    

There can be little doubt that elections of the time featured more than their share of voting fraud, bribery, and exchange of votes for jobs and other "benefits." Nor that recent immigrants were often "fair game" for corrupt politicians., But many "goo-goos" clearly exaggerated the extent and impact of such evils, and misidentified the major culprits. As Ballard Campbell has stated, "the main weaknesses of state and local government were not bribes and kickbacks, but outmoded  institutions of governance," while Melvin Holli has charged that "the reformers all shared a certain style and and a number of common assumptions about the causes of municipal misgovernment and, in some instances, a conviction about which class was best to rule the city. None of the structural reformers had unqualified faith in the ability of the masses to rule themselves, as did their counterparts, social reformers.".                
 Despite all of these roadblocks,  "the masses" eventually managed to make significant headway against "the classes", thanks largely to the Great Depression, New Deal, widespread unionization, the G.I. Bill, the "Great Migration" of southern blacks to northern cities, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Immigration and Naturalization Acts. But since the 1980s, the momentum has shifted again and "the classes" have regained much of the control that they exercised  during the Gilded Age and the 1920s. One thing is certain: they and their clueless followers are replicating many of the arguments and tactics of their predecessors, as we shall explore during my next blog. So, stay tuned.               

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