If the record TV viewership of the Clinton-Trump presidential debates is any guide, voter turnout for the November election could reach levels not seen since the Gilded Age. It’s easy to be nostalgic for the consistently high voter turnout in the late 19th century, until you consider all the people who weren’t eligible to vote back then.
In this episode of BackStory, the Backstory hosts look at voting trends – from the changing mechanisms of voting to how the electoral college system maintained racial hierarchies in the South.
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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Election day is right around the corner, and once again, it’s all coming down to a few key states. If this is what the founders had in mind, well, they sure haven’t gotten much love for that idea.
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Getting rid of the electoral college has been the subject of more constitutional amendments introduced into Congress than any other subject.
ED: Another complaint we hear about voting these days is how few people actually do it. But before you get nostalgic, consider this– in the late 1800s, when voter turnout was at record highs, it was really, really high for some suspect reasons.
MARK SUMMERS: In Louisiana in a normal election year in the Gilded Age, you could get turnouts of 112% to 140%. Bo, did they like to vote.
PETER: The history of voting in America. But first, this history in the making.
TONY FIELD: Hello, BackStory podcasters. I’m Tony Field, senior producer of the show. As you just heard, today’s episode is an election-day special. Parts of it aired as part of a similar show a few years back. But don’t worry– there’s new material in here, too.
If you enjoy today’s podcast, you can show your support through a secure donation on our website, backstoryradio.org. And while you’re there, have a look at the shows we have in the works. Are there questions you’d like to hear us address in any of those shows? You can leave a comment there or email us. Our address is email@example.com. Finally, if you haven’t already, please consider leaving a review of BackStory on our page in the iTunes store. Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to vote.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and by the University of Virginia.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory. with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th-century guy, here with Ed Ayers–
ED: 19th-century guy.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf–
PETER: 18th-century guy.
BRIAN: We thought November was never going to get here. I mean, almost two years of campaigning, debating, poll watching, horse racing, all that stuff. And after all that, we’re left with this odd phenomenon– the undecided voter. Ed, how can anybody be undecided right now?
ED: That’s a good question, Brian, because speaking historically, it’s really hard to understand how somebody could be undecided. Now, I hope our undecided voters out there won’t take it personally. But historians are confused by that concept because for a long time in American history, to be an undecided voter is an oxymoronic statement. If you were going to be a voter, you were decided.
And in colonial America, you made your choice and you stuck with it. Isn’t that right, Peter?
PETER: You’re absolutely right, Ed. Let’s put ourselves in the picture. We’re in Virginia. It’s one of those elections for the House of Burgesses. And remember now, there weren’t many elective offices in colonial Virginia. It was the big one. Who are two guys going to be that we’re going to send down to Williamsburg to represent our county? And I emphasize county because there’s one place to vote. That’s the county courthouse.
Understand, courthouse is where you go to smoke, drink, and be rowdy. And elections are a public event. A little noise, please. Let’s have some over-talking because it’s loud here at the county courthouse.
ED: I can’t hear you, Peter.
PETER: Well, people have gathered around. And we got a couple of candidates in there, standing up there.
MALE SPEAKER: Hear ye, hear ye.
PETER: Voters are gonna come. They are going to publicly declare for whom they are voting in front of the entire rowdy crowd.
ED: So everyone knows how you voted.
PETER: Yeah, they know where you stand. That’s right. You go up there, and you declare who you’re for. Then the county clerk is going to say, so-and-so votes for so-and-so. And then very frequently, that candidate is going to step up and say, why, I thank you for voting for me, sir. And then, perhaps, there’d be some treating. You know what treating is, guys. It’s when the candidates pass out the booze. In other words, you’re not doing this kind of silent thing where you’re going into some kind of penitential booth where you and your God and your candidate get together and decide who’s going to win. No, you’re out there in public. It’s a very public thing, and it is loud.
BRIAN: Oh, well, each week on BackStory, we rip a topic from the headlines and explore that topic through American history. This week, in case you haven’t already guessed it, our topic is voting.
ED: We’re gonna spend the rest of the hour ticking through some of the major issues involved with voting today and figure out how they came to be.
BRIAN: We got early cases of voter fraud, stories of an early American voting bloc– that would be non-US citizens– and we will try our best to explain the God forsaken electoral college.
BRIAN: One issue that keeps coming up this election cycle is that of voter fraud. Specifically, there’s a concern that non-US Citizens might be casting ballots that could swing the election. In the last couple of years, 34 states have introduced legislation to toughen voter ID laws. 30 states do have some ID requirements in place.
ED: But are new restrictions the only way to deal with non-citizens at election time? Jamie Raskin is a state senator from Maryland and a law professor at American University. And back in the 1990s, he was helping to redistrict the city of Takoma Park.
JAMIE RASKIN: When we were redrawing the city council district lines, we drew city council wards that had equal population within them. But even though they had equal population, there were double or even close to triple the number of voters in some districts as others. And when we looked at that, we thought it might be because there were a lot of kids. But it was really because there were a lot of non-citizens.
And so someone said, well, why don’t we redistrict according to the citizen population, which I remembered you couldn’t do, according to Supreme Court precedent. And then I said, well, why don’t we just give everybody the right to vote? And the other people on the task force said to me, well, can you do that? And I said, I’ve got no idea. And so that’s how I started to research whether it was OK to give non-citizens the right to vote in local elections.
And I determined– amazingly, very quickly– the Supreme Court had repeatedly signaled its acceptance of the practice. They said there was nothing remotely unconstitutional about it. It was essentially up to the states and the localities to decide according to state law. And then when I went back further, that’s when I found this incredible buried history that we have of non-citizens voting for most of the years that the country’s been in existence.
ED: Now, this came as a bit of a shock to us here at BackStory. So we wondered if Raskin would push the story back to the early years of America, to the late 1700s and the early 1800s.
JAMIE RASKIN: Most of the states were allowing people to vote if they met the other requirements. If they were white male property owners over the age of 21, it didn’t make any difference where they were born or what their formal nation-state citizenship was. And essentially, the argument for it was we want to welcome people to the country. We want to acculturate them as quickly as possible to democratic practices. We want to educate them about what it means to be a citizen. And so we should give them the right to vote.
ED: In allowing these propertied white male immigrants to vote, the states were saying this– these men have a stake in society. So we can rely on them to take this responsibility of voting seriously.
JAMIE RASKIN: I mean, non-citizen voting had a kind of conservative quality to it when the country began because to impose a citizenship requirement might have implied, quite dangerously, that the relevant criterion for voting was citizenship. And that, of course, extended much more broadly than the people who were being given the right to vote.
ED: It extended to people such as women and unpropertied white men and, in many places, free blacks. All these people were citizens, but they were not allowed to vote. Now, over the 19th century, in much of the country, male immigrants were treated much like other white males. But things began to change around World War I.
JAMIE RASKIN: When we started getting waves of immigration in the early 20th century, from swarthier southern European Mediterranean countries, when Italians came and Jews came and Greeks came and so on, suddenly people began to look askance at the practice of giving non-citizens the right to vote. And by the time you get to World War I, alien suffrage has basically vanished as a practice as states have imposed, either through constitutional provisions or state voting provisions, restrictions on aliens voting. So essentially, that’s where we see the widespread growth of citizenship requirements for voting, at least at the statewide level.
Now, I think that there’s an argument today for non-citizen voting, just at the local level, on the theory that I can have a neighbor who’s Canadian or Swedish or Guatemalan. And there’s a logic for not permitting people to vote in national elections because our national interests may conflict. But in terms of local elections, where we share the same interests in excellent public schools and efficient garbage collection, we should want people to be involved and to be engaged at that level.
So I just brought it to my hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland. And we had a really interesting series of discussions about it. And then there was a public referendum on it. And then the city council voted to change the charter. And so non-citizens have been able to vote in Takoma Park. And there are a number of municipalities in Maryland that allow non-citizens to vote just in local elections.
What’s funny is when you tell people that for most of American history non-citizens could vote, they’re astonished because the citizenship-alien distinction in voting seems to be kind of the most natural, hard-core pillar of democracy today, just like the notion that you had to be male to vote. That also seemed perfectly natural to people, just like the notion that you had to be white to vote.
But if you go back to the 1700s and 1800s, your citizenship was really not much on people’s minds.
ED: Jamie Raskin is a law professor at American University and a state senator in Maryland.
PETER: hosts, nowadays we simply assume that voting and citizenship map onto each other. In fact, you are a bad citizen if you don’t vote. Right?
PETER: But in the early period, we’re talking about different things. The classic apple, the classic orange. I mean, there was no way the framers of the Constitution could have had a single, universally-acceptable standard for voting. So it had to be left to the states.
PETER: And the result is– and this is, I think, the key thing– there is enormous opportunity in the electoral system for what we would say is gaming the system. You can change the law on the state level. There’s nothing unconstitutional or illegal about this. You go for it.
BRIAN: And Peter, why did people go for letting all these immigrants vote?
PETER: Well, there are many reasons for this. One is you want to build population. This is an immigrant-starved period in which the shortfall between American promise and American power is in the failure to have a growing economy and a growing population. So you’ve got to build it.
BRIAN: So if you’re sitting out there in Kentucky or even farther west, and you want to become a state, you need to attract people. And one of the ways you attract them is say, hey, you can vote out here.
PETER: Yeah. And listen, when you come to America in this period, people aren’t checking you out. You’re not a terrorist. You’ve made a lifetime commitment. You’re here. And you’re here partly because of what you take to be opportunity in the broadest sense– that’s economic and personal, but it’s also civic. This idea that this is a place where you can come and make a good life, that’s very attractive. That’s part of the whole boosterism of American immigration encouragement.
ED: Yeah, Peter. Boy, that’s a Jeffersonian vision as America as one giant farm that needs labor. On the other hand, let’s think about what happens in the 1840s and the 1850s when the festering sores that are cities begin filling up with all these immigrants from Ireland and Germany.
PETER: That’s why you said, go west, young man. Get out of here.
ED: Yeah, exactly. But there you see the opportunism that you’re talking about becomes sort of encoded in party identity. The Whigs say, oh, no, no, no, no. You learn to read first, learn to speak our language, perhaps get a job, adopt our religion.
BRIAN: Drink teak.
ED: Then you can vote. The Democrats say, hell, yeah. Come on in.
BRIAN: Have a drink.
ED: Yeah, that’s right, and vote right now. And so in many ways, the defining identity of the first great American party system of the Democrats and Whigs is defined by their attitude toward these immigrants and voting. Would you agree with that, Peter?
PETER: Yeah, I think it’s true, though there are soft Whigs on the edge who understand that they might forfeit, for instance, the Catholic vote, the Irish vote, if they have strong nativist, anti-immigrant policies. So there’s always this tension, not only between parties– which you’re exactly right– but it’s within parties, as well.
ED: So what you see is that none of this is just a generalized attitude toward immigrants. It’s all embodied in particular political parties and particular purposes of populating the west or of controlling a city or of controlling the country. So the North is very much more open to this than the South because they actually have immigrants. So what you see is the relationship between voting and immigrants is constantly changing as both those parts of the equation change.
BRIAN: We’re gonna take a short break. When we come back, we’ll hear about the classic forms of gaming the system.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers and Peter Onuf. Today, we’re talking about the history of voting. And we want to spend a little time looking at early cases of what might be the most exciting aspect of the voting process– cheating.
ED: Ah, yes. It’s kind of surprising, Brian– in the 1880s and 1890s, kind of a golden age of American politics. Voter turnout was at nearly 80% of eligible voters, a remarkable number by today’s standards. It was a time when the national elections were decided on the thinnest of margins and thus could be easily swung by well-executed shenanigans.
These days, elections are all about the top of the ticket– the presidential candidates themselves. But in the 1880s, it was all about the party.
MARK SUMMERS: You’re not voting for William McKinley. You’re voting for the party that saved the Union, the party that will protect you from treason. Or you’re voting for the party of liberty and personal choice. The party of moral ideas on the one side and the party of personal liberty on the other.
ED: This is Mark Summers, an historian at the University of Kentucky who’s written a lot about the high jinks in American politics, especially in the late 1800s. And he’s referring, of course, to the Republicans, what he calls the moral ideas guys, and the Democrats, those liberty lovers.
MARK SUMMERS: You can have Indiana governors shouting right openly there, every man that shot against you during the war was a Democrat. The man that killed Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat. Everyone who hunted slaves with bloodhounds was a Democrat. Soldiers, every scar you have upon your body was given to you by a Democrat.
ED: And that’s so-called waving the bloody shirt, right?
MARK SUMMERS: Well, yeah. But it’s done on the southern side, too, except you don’t wave the bloody shirt in terms of treason. You wave it in terms of, if you don’t vote the Democratic Party, you’re going to have Negro rule. Do you want Negroes sitting in the school right next to your daughter? Do you want a Negro sheriff hailing you? And do you want Negroes on juries? That’s what the Republicans are gonna do! Vote the white man’s ticket. Vote the white supremacy ticket.
Let me ask you, if you knew that the issue was saving your country, wouldn’t it be worth buying a few voters? If the real issue was whether the country was going to be destroyed or not?
ED: So the fact is that they really were unembarrassed about violating what an earlier generation, the founding generation, would have defined as purity at the polls.
MARK SUMMERS: Oh, the politicians were unembarrassed about it. As they would say– one of them wrote in a letter, sometimes you have to fight Satan with his own weapons.
ED: So tell me about Satan’s weapons, Mark. What were the techniques that they would use to trick their way into victory?
MARK SUMMERS: Oh, number one, you’d buy voters. That’s a simple kind of thing. A voter cost you $2, maybe $2.50, maybe, if there’s a lot of competition, as high as 10 bucks. Simple as that. The $2 bill, its main uses is for vote-buying. I mean, that’s it gets its big pull-out. There’s some people that what you might describe as partisan floaters. Might be Republicans, for example, who they would never vote anything but a Republican ticket. But if you don’t buy ’em, they’re not gonna vote at all. And you’re gonna need their votes.
And buying votes is really not all that hard to do because in the days before the secret ballot, each party prints its own ballot, which means that what they do is the party organizer will put the ballot into your hand along with the money or along with the IOU or the promissory note. And when he sees you going to the polls and put that paper ballot in through the slot, he knows he’s got his money’s worth.
ED: Now sometimes, however, that straightforward approach of just buying an election doesn’t work, and people have to resort to more imaginative means. What would some of those have looked like?
MARK SUMMERS: Yeah, colonization, for example. Colonizing. Now remember, up through the 1880s, states vote on different days. So you could vote in Pennsylvania in October and cross the border into New York and vote there in November. Simple enough. Or vote in Indiana in October and already have voted up in Maine and Vermont in September. That’s an easy thing. So you don’t have enough votes? A person who’s smart can bring them across.
ED: Now, all this sounds like these are acts of what we might think of today as corruption that actually involve the voters themselves in a very explicit way.
MARK SUMMERS: Oh, yeah.
ED: But was there not backroom chicanery that was violating the wills of the voters?
MARK SUMMERS: Yeah. Boss Tweed of New York City of Tammany Hall in the 1870s, when he was put on the witness stand once and asked about vote fraud said it wasn’t the voters that made the result. It was the counters that made the result. Let me give an example of, say, Louisiana. In a normal election year in the Gilded Age, you can get turnouts in some counties of 112% to 140%. Boy, do they like to vote.
But you know the best thing about it? This usually will get a turnout overwhelmingly Democratic with this 112%, 140% percent in a parish that has nothing but black Republicans in it. How did they do it? They did it because they put in the kind of votes and returns they wanted to put in.
ED: Can we say that one party cheated more than another back in the Gilded Age?
MARK SUMMERS: Oh, golly. In Indiana, in Delaware, in New Hampshire, no, no. Each side will buy wherever it can buy votes. It’s utterly unscrupulous, utterly dishonest. But you go on down to the South, and almost all the cheating, almost all the swindling, is Democratic cheating. They’re doing it quite deliberately because in states where there’s a black majority, which means a Republican majority, or enough white and black votes to vote Republican, the only way you can win is by wholesale cheating– by owning the election officials, by intimidation, by threats, by what’s known as bulldozing.
Bulldozing is not earth-moving machinery. Bulldozing is the form of intimidation, threats, and violence you use to make sure the other guys don’t vote. You dynamite their newspaper office before election day. You take out a few of their organizers and give ’em a flogging with barbwire. You fish three or four black Republicans out of the bayou maybe a week before the Louisiana election. The other ones, they’re gonna get the message. They’re not gonna show up to vote.
I mean, you go to Mississippi, you go to a black precinct– I mean, this happens in 1875. The blacks are getting ready to vote. A group of white armed riders with ropes over their arms come up, and they say, when do the polls open? And they say, not for five minutes. And they say, then the shooting won’t begin for five minutes, And ride off. How many people do you think are gonna show up to vote there?
ED: Not many.
MARK SUMMERS: Not many, which is one reason why I say in a county like Yazoo County, there’s about 1,000 Republican voters in one year. And the next year, there’s seven.
ED: Now, are there no disinterested reformers who are going to come in and say–
MARK SUMMERS: Sure.
ED: What did they propose as solutions to this problem?
MARK SUMMERS: Oh, they had a lot of good solutions. Number one is the secret ballot. Secret ballot is a ballot that we have today, one that’s printed by the government that has all the parties on it that they’ll be handed at the polling place. Before that, what you have is a paper ballot. It may be about the size of a half sheet of notepaper. And on it, it lists one party’s candidates. And that party passes that ballot out.
I mean, Democrats, if they want to gull the illiterate black voters in the South, you know what they do? They can print a ballot that has Lincoln’s face on the top. Well, Lincoln’s a Republican hero. Of course blacks are gonna vote that ballot. They can’t read that all of the electors down there on that ticket are Democratic electors.
Between 1888 and about 1892, about half the states in the country got the secret ballot. And then sure, the guy can put a gold eagle coin into your hand for $1 or something like that. But he doesn’t know he’s gonna get his money’s worth, does he?
ED: And so the result led into a golden age of American–
MARK SUMMERS: Oh, yeah.
MARK SUMMERS: The golden age of honesty that we’re in today. Oh, no, no, no. If you have a secret ballot, it means that most people who are illiterate probably aren’t going to be able to vote because they can’t read the names. One of the magic things about the secret ballot down South is that for a lot of Southern white politicians, this is the way to keep blacks from voting. Because if maybe 30%, 40%, 50% of blacks have not had schooling and are illiterate, they won’t be able to figure out which party is which, and the Democrats will. It’s meant deliberately to cut out the vote.
But the other thing is a lot of vote buyers actually are people of honesty. And they figure, if I’ve been paid money to vote for the Democratic ticket, by gum, I’m gonna carry through. Vote buying went on in Kentucky all the way into this century and beyond. We’ve had politicians– prominent, up-and-coming, good politicians– who were implicated and jailed for being an accomplice in this kind of vote buying. The secret ballot doesn’t really cure it.
Or I could pick a county in Indiana and show you the same kind of thing, or in Ohio and show you the same kind of thing. It didn’t clean it up entirely.
ED: Is there any part of United States that’s immune to this stuff, Mark?
MARK SUMMERS: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I don’t think there’s ever been an honest state in the Union. I don’t really think so. When the advantage is big enough– I think most voters are honest. I think most politicians are honest, shocking as that may be to say. But there’s always the people out there that want to give themselves an edge. And they’ll get it, if they can.
ED: Mark, thank you so very much for joining us today.
MARK SUMMERS: My pleasure.
ED: That is Mark Summers, who’s a professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He’s the author of Party Games– Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics.
BRIAN: We’re gonna turn now to a piece of the election’s puzzle that everybody knows about, but most people don’t really understand– the electoral college.
PETER: Well, Brian, here’s the intro 101 version– when you go out to vote on November 6, you don’t technically vote for either of the presidential candidates. Keep that in mind now. You vote for a slate of electors who are pledged to support either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It’s those electors who actually vote for the candidates. The number of electors your state gets? Well, simple. You just add up the number of congressional representatives and the number of senators.
BRIAN: All of which means that a candidate can win the popular vote but lose the election. We all remember that happening in 2000, but it’s happened several times before that, too. So why do it this way? Why not just elect the president directly, with the candidate who wins the popular vote automatically winning the election?
PETER: You might have learned in civics class that the electoral college was set up to protect the interests of small states. Now, since the number of senators is the same for every state– you got that?– no matter how small it is, and since that number is factored into the number of electors for each state, small states end up being over-represented in the electoral college.
But the other part of the formula for determining the number of electors– that part about representatives– was also advantageous to a separate group of states– the Southern states.
BRIAN: Alexander Keyssar is an historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He told me that when all of this was being hashed out at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and a few delegates floated the idea of a direct election, it was the delegates from the slave states that shot it down.
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: If there had been popular election of the president, then Southern states would not have gotten any bonus in political power for their slaves.
BRIAN: Yeah, and Alex, explain that to me, that bonus for their slaves. The slaves didn’t vote, of course. So what would the bonus taken away have been with a direct vote?
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: I mean, earlier in the summer, one of the big issues that they settled had to do with slavery. It had to do with small states and big states. And the way in which they dealt with slavery was with what became known, rather notoriously, as the Three-Fifths Compromise, that slaves counted as 3/5 of a person for congressional representation. For determining how many members of Congress Virginia or North Carolina would get, it would be the white population plus 3/5 of the black population.
This obviously gave greater political weight to slave states than they would have had had slaves simply not been counted at all. It was a compromise between saying they shouldn’t count and they should count entirely.
BRIAN: So that if it had been a direct election, obviously none of those slaves would have voted. They would have lost that 3/5 edge per slave.
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Right.
BRIAN: That’s huge.
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Which would have been a very significant redistribution of electoral power among the states. My own view is that that was a very major underlying reason why popular election was not adopted and wasn’t even really seriously considered. It’s mentioned by a couple of people, including Madison. I tend to read it as one of those things that was there, and they knew it wouldn’t work.
BRIAN: But what about after the slaves were freed? I understand there’s a really ironic twist to the Southern advantage here. Could you talk about that a little bit?
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Sure. There’s a deeply ironic twist. The 15th amendment is passed after the Civil War, and African Americans are technically enfranchised. And for a period of 10 to 20 years, depending on the state, they do participate in elections. And they do vote. And then, they are deprived of their voting rights by the end of the 19th century.
The ironic consequence of that is that they are counted for full representation in the selection not only of members of Congress but of electoral votes. And yet they still don’t vote. So the consequence of the Civil War and Reconstruction is what I’ve come to refer to in several things I’ve written as the Five-Fifths Clause.
BRIAN: That’s a good way to put it.
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Southern states get full electoral power in national elections for their black populations. But their black populations don’t vote. I actually went and played with a few numbers on this. And you see things– for example, in 1910, there were more votes cast in New York and Pennsylvania, those two states alone, than there were votes cast in the entire South by a very large margin. And yet the South had twice as many electoral votes.
BRIAN: Yeah. No, it’s truly remarkable. And I was just looking at some data for another reason. But I saw that as late as 1964, only 7% of the eligible African Americans were registered in the state of Mississippi, which just underscores your point about that entire population being represented in the congressional delegation and the number of electoral votes in Mississippi, but only 7% of the blacks actually even being eligible to vote. It’s really remarkable.
ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: And it is a central fact of American political history for the first 2/3 of the 20th century that we don’t pay that much attention to.
BRIAN: That was Alexander Keyssar, an historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
ED: Now, there’s an interesting postscript to this history. In 1969, after a couple of close calls where it looked like the electoral vote and the popular vote might not line up, lawmakers drafted a constitutional amendment to– get this– abolish the electoral college. And it was wildly popular. It passed the House 338 to 70. The American Bar Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO, they all supported it. President Nixon promised to sign it. State legislatures embraced the idea, and it seemed likely that enough of them would ratify it for it to become the law of the land.
BRIAN: But the proposed amendment hit a roadblock in the Senate. Senators who wanted to hang on to the electoral college said a direct election would undermine states’ rights, that it would lead to voter fraud. So they filibustered. They read the names of every French prime minister since 1800– all 153 of them, and they have long names– to make the point that direct elections cause political instability.
ED: And for some of the same reasons that Alex Keyssar just talked about, it was Southerners who waged the opposition, especially hardcore segregationists like Strom Thurmond, who led the charge. They had held on to that 5/5 advantage that Keyssar told us about through most of the 20th century, and they knew that a direct election would erase it.
BRIAN: Yeah, Ed, that’s right. I mean, you just can’t ignore that continuity. It’s what explains the failure of the best chance of reforming the electoral college. The funny thing is those same Southern senators knew that the land was changing beneath their feet. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 meant that African Americans were signing up at record numbers. And white Southerners knew that one day, African Americans in the South would be voting at the same rates as whites. But they did not know when that day was going to come. And until it came, they were going to hold on to some part of the advantage that the electoral college had always given to the white South.
ED: We’re gonna take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll look at a time when voting was like a frat party. And not surprisingly, turnout was pretty great.
Welcome back to BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers, here with Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf. We’ve been talking today about voting and elections in American history. And now we’re going to spend some time answering your questions. Let’s go to the phones.
PETER: All right, guys. We got a call from Durham, North Carolina. It’s Dan.
DAN: Hey, how’s it going?
PETER: Well, pretty good. How about with you?
DAN: Excellent. I was wondering, through American history, what has voter turnout been like? I know that always ends up being a big deal in elections. I think right now, it hovers somewhere around 50%. But I wondered historically what has voter turnout been like and what kind of factors have influenced it?
ED: Well, I’m gonna jump right in here because I speak for the time of the 19th century when voting turnout was at its all-time peak. So this is Ed, the 19th-century guy.
PETER: Almost communistic levels from Eastern Europe.
BRIAN: That’s ’cause some of Ed’s voters turned out more than once, as it turned out.
ED: They rose from the grave sometimes. But we do have a sort of a paradox that in the 1880s and 1890s, the time that fifth graders would have the hardest time naming the list of presidents in a row, sometime between Reconstruction and Teddy Roosevelt–
BRIAN: And not just fifth graders, Ed.
ED: Yeah. Well, I just didn’t want to pick on them. But I thought maybe there weren’t as many fifth graders listening to the show, and I wouldn’t offend anybody else. But sort of an obscure time in American politics, where it doesn’t seem like anything happened. We weren’t at war. The issues we look back on now, what were the big deals? The tariff? Whatever.
And yet you were having over 90%, 95% of people voting sometimes.
PETER: Hey, the tariff is important. Come on.
ED: Oh, I’m sorry. You know, that was just a gratuitous swipe.
PETER: It was! I take the tariff very seriously.
ED: So I take that all back. But my general point being is that this is not a time when less enlightened people than Peter understand really what was at issue.
PETER: Yes. So Ed, why was it so much fun to vote back then?
ED: Yeah, it was all fun ’cause it was like a big frat party because there was a lot of drinking. It was all guys. It was basically like making teams. And you’ve have these contests– who could make the coolest flags and uniforms and all these different kinds of public–
BRIAN: Yeah, and Ed, if I could just add– also, those teams were really evenly matched.
BRIAN: So turnout– it’s like good football. People show up at a football game that they think is going to be close.
ED: Yeah. And it’s like they were giving away free items at every football game, too, that was really close.
BRIAN: Bobbleheads. Bobbleheads.
ED: Exactly. But this time, you were getting jobs or turkeys or hams or things like that. And then we think of the Progressive Era, which is all about direct democracy and direct election of senators.
BRIAN: Good government.
ED: Yeah. And what happens is it begins to kill off voting pretty precipitously. So I’d want to throw the ball to Brian to say, why the heck did the secret ballot and increased literacy and women’s suffrage, why has it actually not helped voter turnout?
BRIAN: Well, Ed, I think the government’s doing less that people felt directly and immediately and concretely affected their lives. So let’s take something like the kind of people who worked in government. Those machines that you talked about and that high turnout produced lots of patronage jobs, lots of jobs that were handed out as a direct result of being connected with a political party. And that meant someone in your family might well get a job as a result of it.
Well, that got replaced by civil service jobs, where people took tests and were hired based on merit. So there was much less of a direct connection between turning out to vote and getting a job. And here’s one of the great ironies of American history– people didn’t see the connections between voting and how it would change their lives, even as the national government especially started making all kinds of decisions that influenced people’s lives much more– literally war and peace, if you count World War I, World War II, et cetera.
DAN: That’s very interesting.
BRIAN: Yeah. Now, I will say, Dan, that voting took an uptick. Ed took us, really, to the 1920s, the end of that Progressive Era. That 1920s were the low point in voter turnout. The New Deal saw a surge in voting turnout, not up to the levels of Ed’s days, but a surge compared to the ’20s. And there was another uptick in the Kennedy-Nixon election in ’60. And very recently, it looks like there is yet another uptick in voting.
But again, Ed’s absolutely right, much as I hate to agree with him. None of this compares to the levels at which people were turning out in the late 19th century.
DAN: Right. Well, thanks a lot.
PETER: All right.
ED: Great question. Thanks.
BRIAN: Thank you.
PETER: Dan, thank you so much for calling. That was terrific.
ED: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory. We’re talking to listeners about the history of voting and elections in America.
PETER: Hey, guys. Rally around. We got a call from the great southwest– that would be southwest Virginia, in Grayson County. And we have Ken on the line. Ken, welcome to BackStory.
KEN: Thank you.
KEN: When I was in college many years ago, I agreed to campaign for candidates outside the polling places on two different November election days. And I remember standing out in the cold all day. And aside from that, I learned my lesson that it wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable experience. And voters weren’t exactly crazy to see a pollster standing outside to greet them.
So I’m just wondering, has there been any discernible change in how volunteers have campaigned for their candidates over the last 200-plus years of American elections?
PETER: Well, we’re gonna answer this one, Ken. But what we want to know is why you came out the second time.
KEN: Peer pressure.
PETER: Peer pressure, OK.
KEN: What can I say?
PETER: Peer pressure. Nice segue here. There used to be a lot of joy in politics. And the joyful noises still echo down through the centuries. They come from the 19th century. Ed, it’s all yours.
ED: Peter, we had so much fun with politics back in the 19th century. It did lead to civil war. But other than that, it was a blast. And from the very beginning of the great system where the Whigs and Democrats went against each other tooth and claw, the whole idea was to mobilize as many men as possible. And to do that, one of the best ways to do it was to get volunteers out there to rouse their buddies from their barstools or from their farms and get to the polls.
And over the course of the 19th century, they just got better and better at that. The Republicans have the Wide Awakes. They’re really young guys dressed up in fancy outfits and carrying torches before the Civil War. The Democrats go into the cities with the ward heelers and making sure that everybody turns up. And as a result, by the 1890s, you’re getting over 100% voter turnout.
PETER: Over 100%.
ED: Not because of fraud but because these volunteers are finding more voters than there were people found by the census takers. So that’s just how great volunteering was in the 19th century.
BRIAN: Yeah, now Ken, I want to make a case for the 20th century. And I hate to do it.
PETER: He should have been having fun. Is that what you’re saying?
BRIAN: I hate to do it by going negative on my good friend, Ed Ayers, and the 19th century.
ED: Oh, no.
BRIAN: But there’s a dirty little secret that he’s not dwelling on here. And that’s that a lot of that excitement in the 19th century and a lot of that fun was because there were tangible, concrete, material rewards at the end of the election.
ED: Heck yeah!
BRIAN: Yeah, exactly.
PETER: That’s a contradiction?
BRIAN: Yes, it is because Ken wants to know about volunteering in a pure sense, people doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Right, Ken?
KEN: Right, altruism all the way.
ED: Yeah, we didn’t have that.
BRIAN: Is that right. So it’s really in the 1960s– most political pundits date it to the Kennedy-Nixon election in 1960, when that charismatic, young John F. Kennedy turns out thousands, tens of thousands of well-meaning, altruistic young people volunteering for the Kennedy campaign. And a lot of people say that’s what put Kennedy over Humphrey, and that’s what put Kennedy over Nixon. And that’s how we got the Peace Corps, a federal program appealing to that idealism.
ED: Don’t, Brian! There are lots of wonderful people in your century.
BRIAN: Really? I haven’t met that many, actually.
PETER: We spent much of our lives in your century. And so we know what we’re talking about. But I think there’s a big difference between fun in the 19th century and these outbursts– very occasional– of youthful idealism. In Ed’s century, when you were at the polls– Ken, if you were at the polls then, if you could flash back, you would know the people you were dealing with. There would be that familiarity. On the other hand, they get themselves all worked up. It’s the best of both worlds. Now we do get ourselves all worked up, but we’ve lost some of the local community familiarity.
BRIAN: And networks. And networks.
PETER: Yeah, I think that’s right.
BRIAN: Family networks, community networks.
PETER: Yeah. And I think the thing is that you felt connected, for instance, to Andrew Jackson through a series of people in the party structure. I think you could explain the Tea Party phenomenon now as trying to recover some of that sense of engagement at the ground level, at the grass roots, in the absence of meaningful party structures that link you to the top.
ED: Yeah, I think that we’re taking our own medicine on this, Ken, because we dream of an idealistic, somewhat disembodied, highly self-aware political system. And what we get is volunteers feeling like, what the heck am I doing standing out here?
PETER: Yeah, exactly.
ED: Right? And what the heck are people doing undecided two whole weeks before the election, right? So in many ways, we’ve gotten what we wished for.
BRIAN: Have you gotten what you wished for, Ken?
KEN: Oh, absolutely.
PETER: Oh, man. Keep calling, then.
KEN: Yeah, will do. This has been a blast. Thanks.
PETER: All right. Thank you very much.
BRIAN: Thanks a lot.
KEN: All right. Thank you guys.
PETER: Hey, guys, get ready for another phone call. We got Keith from Northville, Michigan. Keith, welcome to BackStory.
KEITH: Hi, guys. How are you?
BRIAN: We’re excellent. Good.
KEITH: Good. I know your topic today is voting, which has sometimes included cheating. So here’s my question– the white only property owner voter was cheating in our view today in that a system denied other Americans their natural rights. But representation also included non-voters. How did the non-voters feel about this, say, in the 18th century? Where they insulted to the point of petition? Or are they more inspired to become property owners if they were white?
PETER: Well, that’s a terrific question, and it reflects the kind of question that we do have when we ask historians about the past. That is, how would I do back then and how would I think about this? Now, the key term that you used is natural rights. That is, we now know that we’re just as good as everybody else. And we think of ourselves all as having rights. Now, what does that mean? It means that we’re independent. We have a will of our own, and we should be able to express it. And no government is legitimate that doesn’t build on the consent of people like us.
Well, that’s not true in the 18th century. And what you have to understand is that when Jefferson says, all men are created equal, that’s not the common sense of the thing. In fact, all men are created unequal. There are some who own, and some who are owned, to use the most extreme case. But the large majority of the population, even if it’s not enslaved or in some form of servitude, is dependent– that is, lacks an independent will and, therefore, a civic voice.
Nobody on the outside– or very few people, I should say– would feel that there was anything unnatural or wrong about that. For instance, if you were a child, a wife, a mother, a member of a family, you would think that your husband, father, the householder, patriarch, he’s the one who should represent the family in public life. So clearly, Keith, the thrust of the question is that this is not going to last forever. People are going to start questioning those boundaries.
KEITH: Especially with the Constitution out there at one point and Bill of Rights.
PETER: Yeah. Yeah, except the Constitution left voting requirements to the separate states, which is significant.
ED: And so it was actually decades, really, before any kind of strong movement began to expand the franchise.
PETER: Oh, yeah.
ED: Well, what caused it to change then? This is what, Jacksonian democracy, right? We all learn about that in school. We hear about that and think, well, why did we have to reinvent democracy if we’d only wrote the Constitution 30, 40 years earlier?
PETER: Yeah, that’s a great question, Ed. That is, why don’t they read the Declaration of Independence and say, aha, we have to have universal voting? And I think that really the best answer– it’s going to seem evasive to you– but the best answer is that the society itself has to change in fundamental ways so that a notion of the equality of all adults– including, women of course. That takes a long time– that’s not something that would naturally be deduced from the kind of world that the revolutionaries lived in. They lived in a world of families. They lived in a world in which there weren’t a lot of equals.
BRIAN: So Peter, might you also be suggesting that some of the institutions that grow out of an earlier worldview in society have a real staying power, even as society is changing?
PETER: Yeah. Absolutely right. You could say that we had a kind of a deal. Take this notion of the independent, property-holding householder who gets to vote. Well, the deal is everybody gets to be like an independent householder in the political realm. That’s part of the deal. The rest of the deal is property’s going to be protected. But property and property rights, of course, are the basis of inequality in America and everywhere else. So think about it. We got an equal and unequal society. And those two ideas are in constant tension.
BRIAN: But really what you’re saying, Peter, is that they were in less tension originally. And property was unequally divided.
PETER: I think that’s right.
BRIAN: And votes were unequally divided.
PETER: Yeah. And that was a stable synthesis that lasted for a long time in Colonial America.
BRIAN: Yeah. And I just wanted to ask Keith why he’d be interested in these dispossessed folks from so long ago?
KEITH: This is a really crucial point, I think, because I’m a schoolteacher. And I think the way that a lot of the textbooks frame this time in history, a lot of it’s on the emphasis of the freedoms. You think about people dying for freedom is the way that’s often portrayed in the Revolutionary War. It sounds more like they’re dying for, maybe, property rights. And a lot of it was based on the money and that taxation issue.
PETER: Oh, Keith, what a vulgar conclusion to reach. I didn’t say that. People might die for family. What do you think about that?
PETER: They might die for their community. I don’t think these people are better or worse than we are. They live in a different world. But what I am saying is that the modern idea of equality, which we take for granted, was just not generally embraced at this period.
ED: I guess the argument would be, wouldn’t it, if we wanted to take the positive view, is that the founding documents created the context into which America grew, right? And you see a slow but steady march of enfranchisement to first all white men and then eventually to women and then, finally, after a long time, to all people regardless of skin color.
PETER: Well, Ed, that is the conventional narrative. And there’s a lot to be said for it. I just go back one step further. The first equality is the equality that provincial elites claim in the British empire for their corporate entities, for their provinces. The next kind of equality that’s really important in American history is the equality of states under the Articles of Confederation. That survives in the Constitution. You want to talk about anachronistic, archaic survivals, it’s state equality in the Senate.
BRIAN: And we could toss out another one, which is the electoral college, if you want to talk about–
PETER: We could. We could.
BRIAN: –anachronisms. I
PETER: Yeah. But I guess my point here would be, take an idea like equality. One of the reasons it has so much potential for change is that it migrates from one domain to another, from a corporate entity to an individual. That’s the story that we’re telling.
PETER: Well, thank you so much for the great question.
KEITH: Sure, thanks.
BRIAN: Thanks very much.
KEITH: Thank you. Bye-bye.
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for us today. If you want to vote for four more years of BackStory, head on over to our website, backstoryradio.org. You can drop us a note, be a caller on a future show, or leave a contribution. Think of it as a contribution to our campaign to reform public radio. Again, that’s backstoryradio.org.
PETER: Thanks for listening. And seriously, don’t forget to vote.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Nell Boeschenstein, Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Allison Quantz, and Rachel Quimby.
PETER: Jamal Millner is our technical director. Allen Chan is our intern. Our senior producer is Tony Field. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel– history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.