On Election Day, November 7, Americans will vote for thousands of candidates for public office — governors, state officials and legislators, mayors, a host of county and city supervisors. Their elections will be conducted by an army of poll workers, many of whom are volunteer citizens who receive only nominal pay for their efforts.
They will open the polls, check the electoral rolls, monitor voting machines and count votes. These unknown jobs embody the mechanics of democracy in action, where political partisanship meets the hard reality of numbers. To function, this mechanism depends on the confidence of the American public if democratic government is to survive.
In recent years, we have seen right-wing activists goaded by demagogic mainstream politicians into fueling baseless and ultimately subversive theories of widespread election fraud. Two-thirds of Republicans yet they believe the 2020 election was stolen by Donald Trump. Such suspicion has spread to contaminate even local contests and the most benign electoral practices. In 2022, no less than one-third of poll workers reported that they knew at least one person who quit because of fears and threats.
The systematic attack on elections has come to resemble the most politically fraught period in our history, the post-Civil War Reconstruction era of the 1860s and 1870s.
The brutal violence of that time was much worse than what we see today. White supremacist Democrats knew that the survival of the fragile Republican Party in the South depended on black voters, who would have to be scared away from the polls if the Democrats prevailed.
Thousands of young Black Americans and their white allies were threatened, beaten and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan simply for daring to vote in the former Confederate states. The registrars were threatened while issuing certificates. White mobs physically pushed black voters away from the polls. In some localities, black voters were lured to the polls by armed men and forced to vote Democratic. In some counties, constables were too scared to guard the polls. In Savannah, Ga., local police shot and killed several blacks and drove the rest away from the polls.
In many counties, the Republican vote was simply erased.
Despite these dangers, surprising numbers of determined black voters continued to flock to the polls, enabling Republicans to retain their majority in Congress. If not for the hundreds of thousands of Black Southerners who voted for Ulysses S. Grant, he would have lost the elections of 1868 and 1872 and Reconstruction would have come to an abrupt halt.
By 1872, the worst of the violence was over. However, new forms of voter suppression replaced overt terrorism as white supremacists steadily regained control of the southern states. The Supreme Court ruled in a series of decisions that enforcement of civil rights rested with the states, not the federal government, effectively crippling the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment. Beginning in the 1880s, literacy tests and other forms of discrimination methodically eroded the Black vote, and by the 20th century almost no black Southerners voted at all.
In our time, the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol demonstrated the climate of violence that increasingly permeates our political culture. The most immediate threat, however, may be subtler attacks on the election process.
Death threats against ordinary election workers have become commonplace. In some states, local vigilantes claiming to be independent “election monitors” have attempted to intimidate both voters and poll workers. In the wake of the 2020 election, self-appointed “cybersnipers” in several states have been allowed access to county voting machines in their partisan effort to find evidence of widespread fraud that allegedly prevented Donald Trump from being re-elected. Frivolous lawsuits have targeted poll workers with limited means, forcing them to fend for themselves.
Other sinister trends are also underway. The systematic dissemination of disinformation from far-right sources continues to undermine public confidence in voting and democratic institutions. False rumors of fraud remain epidemic in the right-wing ecosphere.
In the 1960s, said Douglas, Ga., Mayor Pro Tem Olivia Coley-Pearson, officials conducted impossible “tests” at the polls to prevent blacks from voting. “Where we are (now) is a more sophisticated means of voter suppression,” he said. “Right now we’re moving backwards.” Coley-Pearson herself has been charged with crimes twice for trying to help inexperienced voters vote.
In many states, Republican legislatures have arbitrarily restricted mail-in voting, limited the number of days to vote, banned same-day registration, and aggressively purged voter rolls, all measures likely to have the greatest impact on minority voters. In just the past few weeks, Virginia has removed 35,000 legal voters from its rolls. In October, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina pushed through a law that could finally to allow the GOP-controlled state assembly to decide contested elections.
Strong and consistent action by federal and—where possible—state authorities, as well as nonpartisan citizen groups, is essential if we are not to let our democracy slip through our fingers.
The Justice Department must move quickly to use its existing powers to address intimidation of poll workers and racial discrimination against voters. More public resources must be allocated to the security of election workers.
More trust in the electoral system needs to be created through better education of citizens of all ages. Former elected officials from both parties should be enlisted to support and explain the administration of elections to build public confidence. More work is also needed at every level to combat election-related disinformation and baseless conspiracy theories.
Bipartisan citizen groups should demand independent redistricting commissions and work to stop partisan purges of voter rolls, racial harassment, and restrictions on easy access to the polls and early voting. They should also be prepared to sue governments that refuse to act to protect the democratic process.
These are challenging goals. But they are not impossible. The urgent lesson to be learned from Reconstruction is that rights can be usurped by partisan forces that tend to erode democracy. Passivity in the face of overthrow is not politics.
Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of “Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction.”
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