What was the voting mechanism in early elections to the Commons?

What was the voting mechanism in early elections to the Commons?


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From the 1200s in England, counties and towns sent two representatives to Parliament. Sheriffs ran the local elections, in which voters were enfranchised by being freeholders or potwallopers. Presumably the candidates receiving the greatest number of votes won, but were the two seats elected on the same or different slates? How many votes did each voter get?

These elections were means of patronage and bribery; the outcome was often predetermined by local power structures. However, I want to know about the origins or antecedents of the plurality voting rule.


Alright, I am answering from memory of things I have read without quoting specific sources, but this may give you things to search if you want to verify.

Until the partial reforms of 1832 most boroughs and counties elected two members but there were exceptions e.g. in Wales where they only elected one, because of the lower population. The City of London (and I think the largest County, Yorkshire) elected 4. After 1832 some 3 member constituencies were created, it seeming more logical to people at the time, if a county was under-represented, to keep it as one constituency but give it an extra member rather than divide it into separate constituencies as we would now.

I do not know what happened in 3 or 4 member constituencies but in 2 member constituencies electors had 2 votes, but were not obliged to cast both of them. To vote for one candidate only was called a 'plumper'.

There was no requirement for voters to be literate and voting was by voicing one's choice in public at the hustings in the town square or county town, so voters had to be aware that their customers, landlord, neighbours etc. would know how they voted. This was especially true as in most counties the local elite was quite small and in smaller towns most people would know most other people.

Consequently there was some social pressure not to cause local rifts and bad feeling by contesting the election without good reason. Many constituency elections were uncontested. Either the 2 leading factions/ families would compromise that they would nominate one member each, or there was a sufficiently dominant faction or land-owner that it was pointless or unwise to stand against them.

The two member thing goes back to the first Parliament. I do not know if any record survives as to why it was preferred originally, but people then might have found it hard to understand the modern attitude that a single person may be considered adequately able to speak for a whole constituency.

Most but not all constituencies were converted to single member constituencies under Gladstone in 1885, but as another person has said a few remained until 1945.


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Facing up to the consequences of Christmas spending is a common problem in January, but for some in serious financial straights the past, parliament provided a solution. Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-60 section, tells us more about early 17th Century debtors in the Commons…

Not all of those who entered the Commons in the early seventeenth century did so from the noblest of motives. While many were undoubtedly eager to enter St Stephen’s Chapel because they wished to serve the interests of their constituents, or to promote religious reformation, others were rather more self-serving. Some, desirous of employment, hoped that conspicuous service in the Commons would bring them to the notice of the crown others merely sought to continue the family tradition of sitting at Westminster. Among the least edifying reasons for seeking election was the need to escape debtors’ prison. In order to prevent the business of either House from being disrupted, all members of Parliament enjoyed immunity from arrest. However, this necessary privilege created a perverse incentive for election among those who were unable or unwilling to pay off their debts. In the Addled Parliament of 1614, at least eleven members gained seats so as to defeat their creditors. They included such notable figures as Sir William Cavendish, returned as junior knight of the shire for Derbyshire. Heir to the future earl of Devonshire, Cavendish racked up enormous debts because he declined to restrict his spending to his formal allowance. Other conspicuous spendthrifts who sought refuge in the Commons that year included both representatives for Lancashire, Sir Cuthbert Halsall and Sir Thomas Gerrard, 1st bt. In 1625 the Devon gentleman Arthur Bassett was actually languishing in debtors’ prison when he was elected to serve for the Cornish borough of Fowey.

In theory, it was illegal for those who had been outlawed for debt to serve in the Commons. As early as the mid fifteenth century the judges had ruled ‘that matter of outlawry was a sufficient cause of dismission of any member out of the House’. However, despite the risk of damage to its reputation, the Commons consistently refused to expel outlaws. In 1559, for example, they declared that John Smith, though outlawed, ‘should still continue a member of the House’, while in 1593 they refused to unseat Thomas Fitzherbert, even though he had twenty-two judgments against him for debt. During the early seventeenth century the only debtors to whom the Commons denied admittance were Sir William Cope, elected for Banbury in 1625 despite having been put in execution for debt, and Sir Thomas Monck, returned for Camelford in 1626 while in prison.

The Commons’ reluctance to root out those of its members who had been outlawed for debt was not entirely unreasonable, as the case of Ferdinand Huddleston, returned for Cumberland in 1624 despite there being twenty-four outlawries against him, demonstrates. During the debates on this case in the Commons’ committee for privileges, it was observed that outlawry ‘may happen to the best man in a county’. Most men of means needed credit at some time or another, if only to tide them over until the next quarterly rents were due. Under such circumstances, it was understandable if payments to creditors were sometimes late and court action ensued. Members of the committee also observed that it was wrong to deprive the commonwealth of the services of those deemed most able by their electors to serve in Parliament for something as trivial as debt. They also noted that ‘outlawries … are for the most part gotten behind men’s backs and without their privity’. This fear, that members ambushed by their creditors might find themselves expelled from the Commons, was of long standing, for in 1604 a bill to prohibit ‘lurking and secret outlawries’ received two readings.

In essence, the House of Commons believed that its composition should be decided by electors rather than by private moneylenders. However, the crown took a starkly different view. In 1604 the new king, James I, issued a proclamation forbidding the election of outlaws to the forthcoming Parliament, ‘for wee may well foresee, how ill effects the bad choice of unfit men may produce, if the House should bee supplied with Bankrupts and necessitous persons that may desire long parliaments for their private protections’. James was almost certainly encouraged to issue this proclamation by the lord chancellor, Lord Ellesmere, who believed that outlaws were unfit to be lawmakers and that it was the role of Chancery, not the Commons, to determine who was eligible to sit at Westminster. During the course of the ensuing parliamentary elections, Sir Francis Goodwin was returned for Buckinghamshire, only to be disqualified by the attorney general on the (mistaken) grounds that he was an outlaw and replaced by the privy councillor Sir John Fortescue. However, in the ensuing struggle between the Commons on the one hand and the king and the privy council on the other, it was the latter who came off worse. The Commons, horrified that ‘a chancellor may call a Parliament of what persons he will, by this course’, declined to turn their attention to the king’s plan to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland until their claim to jurisdiction was upheld. Faced with the prospect of unwelcome opposition to his pet project, an alarmed James was forced to concede that the lower House, as well as Chancery, was entitled to validate returns. In so doing, he effectively handed victory to the Commons, whose right to determine the outcome of elections was never again challenged by Chancery. The Commons thereupon quietly abandoned their promise to pass legislation that would prohibit outlaws from sitting in future. To have done otherwise would have been tantamount to making a rod for their own backs.


The Electoral College in the U.S. Constitution

The original purpose of the Electoral College was to reconcile differing state and federal interests, provide a degree of popular participation in the election, give the less populous states some additional leverage in the process by providing “senatorial” electors, preserve the presidency as independent of Congress and generally insulate the election process from political manipulation.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered several methods of electing the President, including selection by Congress, by the governors of the states, by the state legislatures, by a special group of Members of Congress chosen by lot and by direct popular election. Late in the convention, the matter was referred to the Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters, which devised the Electoral College system in its original form. This plan, which met with widespread approval by the delegates, was incorporated into the final document with only minor changes.

The Constitution gave each state a number of electors equal to the combined total of its membership in the Senate (two to each state, the “senatorial” electors) and its delegation in the House of Representatives (currently ranging from one to 52 Members). The electors are chosen by the states “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” (U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 1).

Qualifications for the office are broad: the only people prohibited from serving as electors are Senators, Representatives and people “holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States.”

In order to forestall partisan intrigue and manipulation, the electors assemble in their respective states and cast their ballots as state units, rather than meet at a central location. At least one of the candidates for whom the electors vote must be an inhabitant of another state. A majority of electoral votes is necessary to elect, a requirement intended to insure broad acceptance of a winning candidate, while election by the House was provided as a default method in the event of Electoral College deadlock. Finally, Congress was empowered to set nationwide dates for choice and meeting of electors.

All the foregoing structural elements of the Electoral College system remain in effect currently. The original method of electing the President and Vice President, however, proved unworkable, and was replaced by the 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804. Under the original system, each elector cast two votes for President (for different candidates), and no vote for Vice President. The votes were counted and the candidate receiving the most votes, provided it was a majority of the number of electors, was elected President, and the runner-up became Vice President. The 12th Amendment replaced this system with separate ballots for President and Vice President, with electors casting a single vote for each office.


Here's how Britain's voting system works

The U.K.'s first December election in almost a century is likely to decide whether the world's fifth-largest economy leaves the European Union next month or moves toward another EU referendum.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sought to frame the vote on Thursday as the "Brexit election," promising to deliver his so-called "oven ready" divorce deal and take the country out of the EU by Jan. 31.

In contrast, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that, if elected, his left-leaning Labour party would hold another EU referendum within six months. This vote would offer Britain the choice between a "credible" renegotiated leave deal — including a customs union and close single market relationship with the EU — or the option to remain.

Johnson's center-right Conservative government holds a commanding lead in the latest opinion polls, with just one day to go before the election. But, in the wake of 2017's prediction-confounding result, many will be wary of a vote that is much closer-than-expected.

CNBC takes a look at all you need to know about Britain's voting system.


The Founders and the Vote

But how would Americans consent to be governed? Who should vote? How should they vote? The founders wrestled with these questions. They wondered about the rights of minorities. In their day, that meant worrying if the rights of property owners would be overrun by the votes of those who did not own land. James Madison described the problem this way:

The right of suffrage is a fundamental Article in Republican Constitutions. The regulation of it is, at the same time, a task of peculiar delicacy. Allow the right [to vote] exclusively to property [owners], and the rights of persons may be oppressed. . Extend it equally to all, and the rights of property [owners] . may be overruled by a majority without property.

Eventually, the framers of the Constitution left details of voting to the states. In Article I Section 4, the Constitution says:

The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.


Voting Rights for Native Americans

It's often overlooked that self-government in America was practiced by Native Americans long before the formation of the United States government. And yet, Native Americans faced centuries of struggle before acquiring full U.S. citizenship and legal protection of their voting rights.

Many government officials felt that Native Americans should be assimilated into America's mainstream culture before they became enfranchised. The Dawes Act of 1887 was passed to help spur assimilation. It provided for the dissolution of Native American tribes as legal entities and the distribution of tribal lands among individual members (capped at 160 acres per head of family, 80 acres per adult single person) with remaining lands declared "surplus" and offered to non-Indian homesteaders. Among other things, it established Indian schools where Native American children were instructed in not only reading and writing, but also the social and domestic customs of white America.

The Dawes Act had a disastrous effect on many tribes, destroying traditional culture and society as well as causing the loss of as much as two-thirds of tribal land. The failure of the Dawes Act led to change in U.S. policy toward Native Americans. The drive to assimilate gave way to a more hands-off policy of allowing Native Americans the choice of either enfranchisement or self-government.

The Snyder Act of 1924 admitted Native Americans born in the U.S. to full U.S. citizenship. Though the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race, it wasn't until the Snyder Act that Native Americans could enjoy the rights granted by this amendment.

Even with the passing of this citizenship bill, Native Americans were still prevented from participating in elections because the Constitution left it up to the states to decide who has the right to vote. After the passage of the 1924 citizenship bill, it still took over forty years for all fifty states to allow Native Americans to vote. For example, Maine was one of the last states to comply with the Indian Citizenship Act, even though it had granted tax paying Native Americans the right to vote in its original 1819 state constitution. As reported by Henry Mitchell, a resident of that state, Native Americans were prevented from voting in Maine in the late 1930s.

. [T]he Indians aren't allowed to have a voice in state affairs because they aren't voters. . Just why the Indians shouldn't vote is something I can't understand. One of the Indians went over to Old Town once to see some official in the city hall about voting. I don't know just what position that official had over there, but he said to the Indian, 'We don't want you people over here. You have your own elections over on the island, and if you want to vote, go over there.

In 1948, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down a provision of its state constitution that kept Indians from voting. Other states eventually followed suit. Even with the lawful right to vote in every state, Native Americans suffered from the same mechanisms and strategies, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation, that kept African Americans from exercising that right. In 1965, with passage of the Voting Rights Act and subsequent legislation in 1970, 1975, and 1982, many other voting protections were reaffirmed and strengthened.


Congress and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Despite the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, African Americans in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally. Reconstruction Era attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883, an action that ended the federal government’s efforts to protect civil rights for decades.

By the 1950s the civil rights movement galvanized the nation. Congress passed Civil Rights Acts in 1957, 1960, and 1964, but none of these laws were strong enough to prevent voting discrimination by local officials. On March 7, 1965, peaceful voting rights protesters in Selma, Alabama were violently attacked by Alabama state police. News cameras filmed the violence in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Many Americans and members of Congress began to wonder if existing civil rights laws would ever be properly enforced by the local authorities. The question before Congress was whether the federal government should guarantee the right to vote by assuming the power to register voters. Since qualifications for voting were traditionally set by state and local officials, federal voting rights protection represented a significant change in the constitutional balance of power between the states and the federal government.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which aimed to increase the number of people registered to vote in areas where there was a record of previous discrimination. The legislation outlawed literacy tests and provided for the appointment of Federal examiners (with the power to register qualified citizens to vote) in certain jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination. In addition, these jurisdictions could not change voting practices or procedures without "preclearance" from either the U.S. Attorney General or the District Court for Washington, DC. This act shifted the power to register voters from state and local officials to the federal government.

Because the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the most significant statutory change in the relationship between the Federal and state governments in the area of voting since the Reconstruction era, it was immediately challenged in the courts. Between 1965 and 1969, the Supreme Court issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of the law [See South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 327-28 (1966) and Allen v. State Board of Elections, 393 U.S. 544 (1969)].

View the documents below for more information on the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Stacking the deck: How the GOP works to suppress minority voting

When Wisconsin tried to hold a presidential primary election during the pandemic, Milwaukee officials opened just five polling places for the entire city. One study said that difficult access and long lines reduced turnout by more than 8% — and more than 10% for Black voters. (AP photo by Morry Gash)

Phones were ringing in Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and on the line was a robocall with an ominous campaign message: If you want to vote by mail, it warned, your personal information will be turned over to the police and to debt collectors.

The call played on crude racial stereotypes and was blatantly false — but dishonesty was the point. Whoever engineered it apparently wanted to sow confusion and fear among people of color in Democratic strongholds before the Nov. 3 presidential election. Far from an aberration, UC Berkeley scholars say, the robocall was just one flashpoint in a wider campaign playing out in courtrooms, legislative chambers and political communication in battleground states and nationwide.

The objective, pursued by Republicans in a seeming war of attrition, is to use a range of tactics and tools to reduce the number of votes cast by people of color, swinging a close election to incumbent President Donald Trump and away from Democrat Joe Biden.

In Wisconsin, the GOP has pressed to limit early voting and succeeded with the backing of Republican-appointed federal appellate judges. In Florida, courts have backed Republican efforts to withhold voting rights from hundreds of thousands of felons, many of them people of color.

The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic has generated broad support for more voting by mail, but Trump has warned of fraud, and Republicans in Texas followed by limiting vote-by-mail ballots. In effect, more people will have to stand in line on Election Day, risking their health to vote — or opting to not vote.

Bertrall Ross, professor of law

“This is perhaps the most consequential election for African Americans and people of color since the election of 1860, or at least since 1960 or 1964,” said Bertrall Ross, the Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. “What we’re seeing in the campaign now is the same voter suppression practices we have seen historically to target African Americans and other people of color. But this time, those who promote voter suppression will have the pandemic as both a justification for voter suppression practices and a tool to support the practices.”

Political scientist Eric Schickler, co-director of Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies (IGS), said an “erosion of restraints” in a “racially polarized party system” has cleared the way for greater use of “stack-the-deck” strategies.

“You hear people talking openly about making it harder for groups to vote — whether it’s young voters or Black voters or Latinx voters — in a way that echoes the Jim Crow South,” Schickler said. “It’s really something we haven’t seen in recent American politics. It’s out in the open, explicit.”

Berkeley News will examine racial justice in America in a new series of stories.

Going back more than 50 years, Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush all sought to galvanize white votes with attacks on people of color — often, though, in subtly coded communication. This year, however, is different. Not only are the racial attacks explicit, as Ross and Schickler say, but they come at time when communities of color are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic and vulnerable, as well, to persistent episodes of police violence — often committed with impunity. And, they add, Republicans are attempting to use those vulnerabilities to their advantage.

Susan Hyde, professor of political science at UC Berkeley

While vote suppression targeting people of color is a grim tradition in U.S. elections, this year the election process itself has become a central campaign issue. Trump has warned repeatedly, and without evidence, of Democratic efforts to rig the vote, and the allegations implicitly justify vote suppression. Democrats fear that built-in bias in the Electoral College already puts them millions of votes in the hole, and that purged voter rolls, disinformation campaigns and long voting lines could literally cost them the election.

Already, that’s setting up a historic fight over the legitimacy of the election results. Berkeley political scientist Susan D. Hyde, a specialist in “democracy backsliding,” said these efforts raise fundamental questions about the health of America’s political system.

“The assault on the right to vote is always troubling,” Hyde said, “and it is definitely on my long list of worries for the 2020 U.S. election.”

A bias at the root of American democracy

“One person, one vote” — the idea is an expression of American democracy in its pure form. In practice, however, the effort to limit the political power of people of color, or to disenfranchise them altogether, dates to the founding of the nation.

Protest signs carried in the historic 1963 March on Washington show that issues of voting rights and police brutality have remained points of bitter frustration for more a half-century — and through much of the nation’s history. (Library of Congress photo by Marion S. Trikosko)

Only after the Civil War, with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, were Black men given the right to vote. Not until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920 were Black women allowed to vote. Even then, a vast system of obstacles — including poll taxes and literacy tests — prevented many Black people from voting.

The civil rights movement focused on many of those practices, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had a profound effect on reducing vote suppression. Still, inequality persists.

Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies

Why? One cause is the bias hard-wired into American political institutions, Schickler said.

In recent practice, Republican-dominated states have gerrymandered congressional districts — manipulating the boundaries to assure that people of color are the minority in some districts or overwhelmingly concentrated in just a few districts.

The U.S. Senate is similarly unbalanced, with smaller rural states holding seats and influence far out of proportion to their populations.

The Electoral College, which ultimately determines the winner of presidential elections, has a similar bias. Consider California: In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton received nearly double Trump’s vote in the biggest U.S. state. But whether she won by 4 million votes or just 40, she would have gotten the same 55 electoral votes.

In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, she lost by a combined margin of less than 80,000 votes — but Trump got all of their electoral votes. In effect, Clinton’s surplus 4 million votes in California were wasted in the Electoral College.

In recent decades, as people with higher education, those with liberal values and people of color have become more and more concentrated in cities, the structural bias has only become stronger in favor of rural states that have smaller minority populations.

Today, the structural bias is so great that, in Schickler’s calculation, Democrats need to defeat Republicans by at least 3 to 4 percentage points in the popular vote to assure victory in the Electoral College. That means Biden may need up to 5 million more votes than Trump nationwide to eke out a win in the Electoral College.

A campaign based on stacking the deck

Republicans have won the popular vote in a presidential election only once since 1992 —with the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. In 2000 and 2016, they lost the popular vote, but won in the Electoral College. They understand that America’s increasing diversity works against them, and increasingly, they’ve answered by trying to discourage or block voters in swing states with significant minority populations.

News reports this week showed that, in 2016, Republican candidate Trump used advanced data-driven techniques to target 3.5 million Black voters with social media messages aimed to discourage them from voting. Latinx, Asian American and other communities of color also were targeted.

“Republicans believe, correctly, in most cases, that minorities and young adults disproportionately support Democrats,” said Thomas Mann, an IGS resident scholar. “Reducing their turnout works to the advantage of Republicans.”

Driven by that incentive and enabled by key legal rulings, Republicans increasingly embrace what Schickler and other scholars call “deck-stacking strategies”:

Purging voter rolls. Election officials typically remove the names of people who have died or moved from rosters of registered voters. But some states go further, removing names of people who have not voted in recent elections — a practice that is prone to error and may be unconstitutional.

In recent years, the fight has been intense in three GOP-dominated battleground states. Georgia purged 1.4 million names. Ohio last year purged 460,000 registrations, thousands of them in error. A conservative group in Wisconsin this year is pressing for a new purge, with the case now pending in court.

Experts leaders say voter ID requirements effectively exclude some 20 million Americans who don’t have official identification, many of them poor people, young people and people of color. (Flickr by Michael Fleshman Creative Commons)

Voter ID Laws. Since 2000, at least 25 states have imposed new or stricter rules requiring voters to show identification at the polls. But Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at Berkeley, said an estimated 20 million or more voting-age Americans lack proper government identification, and most are people of color, young people or low-income people.

Barring felons from voting. Under Florida law, nearly a quarter of Black adults are barred from voting because of past felony convictions. In 2018, Florida voters approved, by a large majority, a measure allowing some 1.4 million felons to vote.

Republican lawmakers, backed by court decisions written by Republican-appointed judges, have largely blocked the Florida measure from going into effect.

How important are those votes? In 2000, George W. Bush took Florida — and the White House — with a margin of 537 votes. The state is expected to be close this year, too.

Using the pandemic to reduce voting

The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 fundamentally changed the presidential campaign, transforming the logistical challenges of safe voting into a core issue of the race.

While Democrats argue that voting by mail can help to keep voters safe, Republicans have argued — without evidence — that voting by mail raises the serious risk of vote fraud.

Underlying the strategy is a calculation: Fear of the pandemic will reduce the number of poll workers. If Republicans can reduce the number of polling stations and force people to wait in longer lines, research shows that overall voter turnout will be reduced. That’s likely to hurt cities more than rural areas and people of color more than white people — and Democrats more than Republicans.

The Wisconsin primary election last April is a case study. Milwaukee is the state’s biggest city, and people of color are a majority of the population. A shortage of poll workers forced the city to reduce its polling places from 182 in the 2016 general election to just five for the 2020 primary.

Absentee voting surged, but with the closure of polling places, overall turnout fell by about 8.5 percentage points from turnout in the 2016 primary — and by 10.2% among Black voters, according to a study by the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

This fall, in a climate of confusion and fear, communities of color may be vulnerable.

“Since information about how and where to vote is surprisingly hard to come by,” Ross said, “misinformation campaigns can be quite effective in leading people to vote in a wrong way or at the wrong place. Even if voters realize that they’ve been scammed, they may not have the time, resources or the will to try to vote at the correct site.”

‘Massive electoral fraud and a rigged election’?

President Trump and other Republican leaders have waged an unrelenting attack on mail-in voting, contending — without evidence — that it favors Democrats. “Mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election,” Trump charged recently in a tweet.

Mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election. Look at all of the cases and examples that are out there right now, with the Patterson, N.J., being the most recent example. Republicans, in particular, cannot let this happen!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2020

Certainly early voting and voting by mail could reduce the advantage Republicans see in reduced polling stations and longer lines. But as Trump attacks the mail, Brady sees another possible motive.

“It may be,” he said, that “Trump is simply more concerned with undercutting the legitimacy of the election than he is with anything else.”

Such scenarios, dismissed even six months ago, are now central to discussions about Nov. 3 and the days after. If Biden wins in a landslide, that may prevent a bitter fight over the validity of the outcome. But if the race is close, and Trump loses, many worry that this result could jeopardize a clear outcome and a peaceful transfer of power.

In that scenario, Ross sees Trump targeting Black communities and other communities of color with unfounded accusations of vote fraud, casting suspicion on their political leaders, their local postal stations — and their ballots. Trump did the same in 2016, falsely blaming undocumented immigrants for Clinton’s win in the popular vote.

“Underlying that will be an implicit assessment of whether they belong, whether they should have voice in these elections,” Ross predicted. “And given the white racial hostility that this particular president has stoked, having that be a part of the discussion is dangerous and threatening, and it could have long-term negative effects on the willingness of Black and brown people to assert their voting power.”

Can we build a better democracy?

Legal action is underway to overturn some GOP suppression initiatives. But with little more than a month until Election Day, Mann suggested, the best countermeasure is straightforward: To overcome vote suppression, people need to try to vote, in overwhelming numbers. They need to be aware of obstacles, including misinformation and potential harassment at polling stations. Political organizers need to help communities navigate a complex and threatening landscape.

As you can see here they are blocking the entrance to the voting site. #EarlyVoting #VA #FairFax pic.twitter.com/KJ6fbLdP3G

— Anthony Tilghman (@AnthonyTilghman) September 19, 2020

If Democrats can win control of the White House, both houses of Congress and more states, Mann said, experts already have identified a range of measures to strengthen voting rights and elections.

For the long term, Mann suggests that mandatory voting laws would eliminate incentives for vote suppression. Schickler said Democrats could focus on statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, which could help offset the current built-in bias in Congress and the Electoral College.

Other experts suggest the answer to vote suppression has to include old-school political organizing — and recent experience in Arizona shows how effective that can be, said Berkeley Law professor Kathryn Abrams. A campaign to defeat controversial anti-immigration Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2016 was part of a broader, sustained effort that increased Latinx turnout in the 2018 election to 49%, up from 32% in 2014, she said. The organizing over the course of a decade — even after Arpaio was defeated — helped to register 500,000 new voters.

And yet, this year’s racially divisive presidential campaign raises existential questions about the nation’s political future. One important question rests with the Republican Party, Schickler said. “Do they adapt to this multiracial democracy, or do they keep fighting it?” he asked. “The optimistic take is that, eventually, as demographics keep changing and counter-organizing continues, the strategy of suppression will lose its appeal.”

Ross is mulling that question, too, but he foresees the possibility of political crisis leading to civil conflict.

“One of the questions that we need to face over the next four years is, ‘Is this kind of multiracial democratic project going to work for the future?’, he said. “It’s a time in which it feels that we can take a step backward, in terms of civil rights gains that we’ve made over the past half-century.”


Voting Rights for African Americans

A terrible and bloody Civil War freed enslaved Americans. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1868) granted African Americans the rights of citizenship. However, this did not always translate into the ability to vote. Black voters were systematically turned away from state polling places. To combat this problem, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. It says:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Yet states still found ways to circumvent the Constitution and prevent blacks from voting. Poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation all turned African Americans away from the polls. Until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1915, many states used the "grandfather clause " to keep descendents of slaves out of elections. The clause said you could not vote unless your grandfather had voted -- an impossibility for most people whose ancestors were slaves.

This unfair treatment was debated on the street, in the Congress and in the press. A full fifty years after the Fifteenth Amendment passed, black Americans still found it difficult to vote, especially in the South." What a Colored Man Should Do to Vote", lists many of the barriers African American voters faced.

The fight for African American suffrage raged on for decades. In the 1930s one Georgia man described the situation this way: "Do you know I've never voted in my life, never been able to exercise my right as a citizen because of the poll tax? . I can't pay a poll tax, can't have a voice in my own government."

Many brave and impassioned Americans protested, marched, were arrested and even died working toward voting equality. In 1963 and 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought hundreds of black people to the courthouse in Selma, Alabama to register. When they were turned away, Dr. King organized and led protests that finally turned the tide of American political opinion. In 1964 the Twenty-fourth Amendment prohibited the use of poll taxes. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act directed the Attorney General to enforce the right to vote for African Americans.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act created a significant change in the status of African Americans throughout the South. The Voting Rights Act prohibited the states from using literacy tests and other methods of excluding African Americans from voting. Prior to this, only an estimated twenty-three percent of voting-age blacks were registered nationally, but by 1969 the number had jumped to sixty-one percent.