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Voting violence

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | July 25, 2012

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

Voter registration, 1960 (Tennessee Encycl.)

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

Warning, 1939 (LC-USZ62-135351)

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.

Comments to “Voting violence

  1. Prof. Fischer, your post is very important considering events during the current 2012 election process. Recent presidential debate has shown to us a divided country, and for sure there was trickery from both sides.

  2. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with Anthony. In spite of the “shenanigans” in DC we must retain faith in our republican democracy if we truly want to rectify the ills in this country.

    I do agree that there is an enormous amount of disillusion especially with young voters when it comes to both parties. Ron Paul, an obvious RINO and Libertarian poster boy has become the champion around college campuses throughout the country. He’s the embodiment of this rebellion against the ugliness of two party politics.

    Have you seen the recent presidential debate? Watch it and then tell me that it isn’t the perfect illustration of just how divided we are as a country.

  3. P.S. Prof. Fischer, your post is extremely important and must be taken very seriously considering events occurring during the current 2012 election process, so I wish to add the following thoughts to those I posted yesterday.

    In a 13 July review by The Guardian’s Yvonne Roberts she highlights “The Price of Inequality, Joseph E Stiglitz passionately describes how unrestrained power and rampant greed are writing an epitaph for the American dream. The promise of the US as the land of opportunity has been shattered by the modern pleonetic tyrants, who make up the 1%, while sections of the 99% across the globe are beginning to vent their rage. That often inchoate anger, seen in Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s los indignados, is given shape, fluency, substance and authority by Stiglitz. He does so not in the name of revolution – although he tells the 1% that their bloody time may yet come – but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few.”

    Further, in an LATimes 26 July article by Jami Goldberg “Sandra Day O’Connor defends John Roberts’ healthcare ruling” she reports that “In the wake of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decision that opened the door to unlimited corporate political spending, O’Connor warned that the decision could allow wealthy donors to exert influence on judicial elections.”

    Many lessons learned from the history of democracy prove that it is much easier to lose a democracy than to create one, especially when a government based on the philosophy of rational empiricism can be far too easily overwhelmed by a political philosophy of absolute idealism when too many citizens watch and do nothing, and look the other way.

    The Guardian’s Yvonne Roberts also noted ‘The Greeks saw tyrants as fundamentally pleonetic in their motivation. As Lane writes: “Power served greed and so to tame power, one must tame greed.”‘

  4. Another way to look at this is that Obama and congressional democrats have surrendered our government to the republicans for the last four years so what good is it to fight for voting, civil and women’s rights, especially when some of America’s preeminent characterize the revocations of American rights by the GOP and SCOTUS as mere “shenanigans,” which relegates it to the level of schoolyard mischief?

    The evolving reality of this election is that far too many people are giving up on American democracy because neither political party protects and defends We The People as their paramount obligation anymore due to the overwhelming power of money that has corrupted, or made impotent, everyone in Washington.

    However, it must not be overlooked that our youngest voting generations have a brand new, most power communications technology ever at their disposal to fight back with that no generation has had before, that is if they choose to save democracy from being destroyed like so many other times in history by the power money/greed/hate, and impotence.

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