by Akim Reinhardt
It’s still a year away, maybe three, but you can see it coming.
A majority of Republican voters think we’re all paying too much attention to the attempted coup of January 6. Only a quarter of them think it’s even worth finding and prosecuting the rioters who stormed the Capitol, sent elected politicians scurrying for the lives, and attempted to reverse the election.
That is not surprising, perhaps, given that nearly two-thirds of Republicans have gulped the entire propaganda load and believe that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election and is not president today only because Democrats “stole” the election.
The Republican Party leadership has enabled all of this, passively playing along with The Big Lie. It has done almost nothing to challenge the propaganda that infects its constituents, remaining silent about some of the lies and actively promoting others. The GOP power structure, it seems, is quite willing to trade constitutional government for its own political power. Indeed, when one of their own number, ultra-conservative Cheney family scion Lynn Cheney dared to publicly defend the U.S. constitutional system against the January 6th insurrection, House Republicans punished her, stripping taking away her official leadership position. Meanwhile, behind the scenes Republican state governments are advancing a subtler mechanism for electoral corruption. In one state after another, Repubican governments are undermining local election commissions by removing Democratic members or stripping commissions of power.
As the situation deteriorates and American constitutional government is increasingly imperiled, it’s easy to focus and place onus on Donald Trump. Too easy, perhaps. He is of course the tinted face and gaping mouthpiece of modern American electoral corruption, and aside from fomenting The Big Lie, he is more recently urging Republican legislatures to violate federal law by appointing loyal electors after the elections instead of on Election Day. But in truth, Trump is at best the catalyst that ignited an inferno amid the dry kindling of naked power grabs that the Republican Party has been stacking for decades. The GOP was primed to receive Trump when he emerged six years ago, and in retrospect it is unsurprising that Republican parties at the national, state, and local levels have exploded into real and potential corruption. GOP voters and politicians alike have embraced or at least made their peace with it, the masses believing The Big Lie and various party leaders happy to profit from it.
But if the Republican party has been building to this moment for 40 years, then this moment is also a reaction to an unusually clean and honest period of American democracy.
Republican attacks on American democracy may seem new since most of us do not personally remember it, but serious electoral corruption in the United States is hardly unprecedented. In fact, there is a long history of it.
In the half-century following the Declaration of Independence, there was not a lot of documented electoral corruption, perhaps because there weren’t very many people who could actually vote. Just monied white men. However, after the states began expanding the franchise in the 1820s, and the federal government began doing likewise in 1870, American electoral corruption became commonplace.
The founders had worried about electoral corruption in a democracy, which is one reason why they created a republic with very limited voting rights and restricted voting eligibility. But whereas Revolutionary elites mostly fretted about what poor and uneducated voters might do with the franchise, they seem to have been less concerned about what would prove to be the actual source of most electoral corruption: American governments and political parties. After all, politicians typically have far more to immediately gain and lose from elections than do voters.
In the decades prior to the Civil War, concerns grew about vote-buying and other unruly electoral behavior in the North’s chaotic burgeoning cities. But it was after the war the serious electoral corruption really took off.
In the North, increasingly organized political rings and machines engaged in a wide array of corruption, including political corruption. While state-level Republican machines in the North were also guilty, it was the Democratic urban machines that became infamous because most of them had immigrant constituents who excited nativist fears among the nation’s native-born Protestants. Stereotypes aside, machines paid for friendly votes in a variety of ways, intimidated or otherwise found ways to nullify opposition votes, stuffed ballot boxes, and otherwise corrupted elections.
In the South, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (1870) meant white supremacists could not simply pass laws to end black voting rights. So to overturn Reconstruction gains and destroy the political alliance of former slaves and white unionists, white Democrats used violent voter repression, murdering black political leaders, instigating occasional massacres, and sufficiently intimidating enough black and white Republican voters that white Democrats were able to take control of state and local governments.
With exploitative Southern elites back in power, and the region still ravaged by the aftermath of war, economic conditions were bad enough for most people that during the 1880s and 1890s black farmers began to unite politically with their white counterpart. Elites reacted by passing a slew state and local segregation and voting restriction statutes commonly known as Jim Crow laws. By the early 20th century, a majority of black Southern voters were disenfranchised, as were some poor white voters.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new Native, Asian, and Latino voters across the nation, and particularly in the West, also faced voter repression techniques ranging from hostile court decisions to voter restriction laws to intimidation and violence.
Voting restriction laws existed in the North, and Election Day corruptions existed in the South and West. However, in general the various regions specialized in their methods of electoral corruption, be it formal and unconstitutionally legalistic or more informal and overtly criminal. And these systems of electoral corruption persisted as a central feature of American elections for the better part of a century. Parties and politicians used methods ranging from the mundane to the brash. Before binding primaries, backroom deals marginalized voter choice. Minority voters were often blocked from voting altogether. And acts of outright electoral corruption still occurred.
The post-WWII civil rights movements attacked voter repression head on as African American, Native American, and Chicano citizens agitated for voting rights that they techincally possessed but had long been denied. Eventually, after decades of sacrifice, they were successful. The 24th Amendment (1964) banned poll taxes, a mainstay of Jim Crow laws. The 1965 Voting Rights Act eliminated most other restrictions that had been used as an end around to the 15th Amendment. Amid the prevailing pro-democracy sentiments, the 26th Amendment (1971) further extended the franchise by lowering the voting eligibility age from 21 to 18.
Afterwards, illegal and unconstitutional voter restrictions largely faded from U.S. elections. It would be naive to think electoral corruption no longer existed as it’s probably impossible to entirely stamp out fraud and corruption in a nation with over 300,000,000 people. However, from the 1970s–2010s U.S. elections were probably as honest and clean as they’d been since the early days of the republic when only a relative handful of Americans could vote.
One irony of these developments is that the Democratic Party had been more involved in electoral corruption than the Republican Party, but it was the Democratic Party that had now led the charge on voting rights and franchise expansion. Or at least the party’s Northern wing. The Republican Party immediately reacted by recruiting disaffected Southern white Democrats. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign code named it the Southern Strategy. The Reagan Revolution cemented the shift. By the 1980s, minority voters were overwhelmingly Democrats, and a growing percentage of white voters aligned with the GOP.
In a majority white country, this strategy worked well for the Republicans. However, as immigration from non-European countries skyrocketed during the turn of the 21st century, the GOP’s racialized strategy a probable expiration date. For many years, top level Republican planners have stressed their party’s need to attract more minority voters, who will soon enough be half the electorate. In the 2000 election, Republican George W. Bush openly recruited Hispanic voters, even speaking Spanish at some campaign stops. And after Democrat Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection victory, the Republican National Committee released a frank autopsy that stressed the need to attract more minority and women voters.
It’s been a slog. Some Republican candidates do better than others at moving beyond the party’s base of white men without college degrees. Donald Trump, despite his frequent openly racist comments, famously did better with minority voters than did that 2012 loser Mitt Romney. Despite that, Trump still only got 6% of black votes in 2016 and 8% in 2020. Among Hispanic voters it was respectively 28% and 38%. And to make matters worse for Republicans, the 2020 election had the highest turnout rate in a century.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, goes the old saw. But today’s Republican electoral version might be, If you can’t get ‘em to vote for you, don’t let ‘em vote at all.
Through the first nine months of this year, 19 states, almost all of them with Republican governments, passed 33 laws making it harder to vote. Harkening back to the heyday of Jim Crow, it’s a hodgepodge of bills, none of which directly challenge constitutional guarantees, but all of which in one way or another indirectly attack poor minority voters disproportionately. Examples include: making mail voting and early voting more difficult; imposing more onerous voter ID requirements; increasingly the likelihood of faulty voter purges. New and more or more stringent criminal penalties on election officials and other individuals are designed to deter them from assisting voters and from engaging in ordinary, lawful, and often essential tasks. Georgians can now be arrested for handing out water or snacks to voters waiting in line at the polls; no mind that lines are usually longer in minority precincts as state officials assign fewer machines to them. Iowans and Kansans can be charged with a crime if they return a ballot on behalf of disabled, elderly, or non-English speaking voters who need assistance. Texas election officials can be sneenced if they encourage voters to request mail ballots or regulate poll watchers’ conduct.
Also reminiscent of Jim Crow voter restrictions, some states are creating a basket of voting obstacles, and different states are enacting different combinations of laws. Arkansas and Montana have passed four different laws. Texas and Arizona have each passed three.
And more may be on the way. During 2021 legislative sessions, well over 400 restrictive voting bills have been introduced in 49 states. Most weren’t or won’t be passed, but many have or will. This is clearly a concerted Republican effort to diminish American voting participation while doubling down on maintaining a constituency that is largely white .
If you can’t anticipate the possibility of large scale Republican electoral corruption over the coming electoral cycles, you’re either not paying attention or, well, a partisan Republican. As with Jim Crow voter repression of the past, new voter suppression techniques will be legalistic. Other official channels of corruption will come from well-placed political apparatchiks in sensitive positions ready to sway results in their favor with the flimsiest or even fantastical of justifications. And if that fails, perhaps more organized and localized versions of the violent January 6 revolt will resurface.
American citizens who support constitutional government should be asking hard questions about how to prevent possible corruption and voter suppression. I count myself among them. But I’m also interested in how Americans will react to corruption and suppression should it come to pass.
Based on how they reacted in the 19th and 20th centuries, I am not filled with confidence. Humans have a seemingly endless capacity to normalize almost anything. And that will be the real challenge. Not to simply accept electoral corruption and voter suppression as the new norm. To throw our arms up and think there’s not much we can do even as we bemoan these developments. Outrage is difficult to sustain over the long run. Hard work is not. Democratic elections are forever susceptible to corruption. We must continually work hard to ensure their integrity.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com