The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long history of black voter suppression in American politics

In August 1922, the Topeka State Journal reported on an unusual voter suppression tactic. Members of the Ku Klux Klan reportedly flew over Oklahoma City, dropping cards into black neighborhoods, warning people to be cautious before heading to the polls.

The only thing that’s really hard to believe about this is that the Klan used airplanes to deliver the message.

It’s not surprising that anti-black rhetoric manifested itself in Oklahoma. The year prior, white mobs burned down a flourishing black community in Tulsa, killing an estimated 300 people.

It’s not surprising that the Klan was so public. In the 1920s, membership in the group spiked, with such a robust presence that supporters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, before a crowd of thousands, afterward retiring to Arlington for a cross-burning. The Klan marched through Queens, New York in 1927, sparking some fighting during which Donald Trump’s father was arrested.

It’s also not surprising that the Klan was actively involved in politics. In the early part of the 20th century, the Klan was so public in its aims that it endorsed candidates for office. In 1924, black Republican voters — loyal to the party since its abolitionist days — demanded that Calvin Coolidge, then the incumbent president, take a strong stand against Klan-endorsed candidates from the party.

And it’s certainly not surprising that the Klan sought to use its position as an overt public organization and its interest in politics to keep nonwhite people from voting.

The card-drop from the airplane was one thing. The Topeka State Journal also reported that Klansmen pledged to stake out polling places in Texas that year, with an aim to “take careful note of the voting procedure." (This news article and the airplane one are via the excellent Tweets of Old Twitter account.)

Intimidation of voters by the Klan goes back way further than 1922, though. In 1871, Congress passed the Second Enforcement Act, better known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. Among its provisions was an effort to curtail often-violent efforts to prevent black people from casting votes in elections. Fifty years later, the Klan was no less subtle in its intentions, even if the methodology was sometimes — sometimes — more nuanced.

There are obvious parallels between those news articles and the current presidential election, even beyond that note in the Texas article about all of the women on the ballot. The menacing suggestion that voter fraud or voting irregularities necessitate keeping a close eye on things is born not of legitimate questions about the outcome of an election but of an attempt to create an excuse for keeping certain voters away from the polls.

Politico reports that the Trump campaign has inspired white supremacists and members of the Klan to head to the polls once again, both in support of his candidacy and to keep an eye on things in the helpful way of those Texans in 1922.

The Klan’s support for Trump has long been an undercurrent to the campaign, but this week it became official, with the organization's official newspaper (“The Crusader") formally endorsing.

The Trump campaign strongly rejected the newspaper’s stance. “This publication is repulsive and their views do not represent the tens of millions of Americans who are uniting behind our campaign,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

That is unlikely to tamp down what the racists are doing. A representative from an “alt-right” website provided a statement to Politico’s Ben Schreckinger about its efforts. “We are organizing poll watchers in urban areas to cut down on the most traditional type of voter fraud,” the statement read. “We also will have stationary cameras hidden at polling locations in Philadelphia, to monitor anyone that comes in to vote and make sure that the same people are not voting at multiple locations.” It is easy to install those cameras, the person explained, because “black schools are so disorderly that pretty much any official-looking white person with a clipboard can gain access to them.”

Another prominent racist told Schreckinger that he was “sending an army of Alt-Right nationalists to watch the polls.” A third — the man who was slated to be a Trump delegate in California until people noticed — has been running automated phone calls in Utah suggesting without evidence that independent candidate Evan McMullin is gay.

Most of this is probably just clumsy bravado from people more comfortable tweeting about racial hostility than actually trying to sneak into a public school. But political efforts to make it harder for black voters to get to the polls have been much more effective when passed legislatively. New laws approved since 2012 have trimmed early voting time in Ohio and North Carolina, contributing to lower turnout from black voters so far in those states.

The through-line was obvious in North Carolina: cite voter fraud as a problem, link early voting to increased voter fraud, cut back on early voting, see lower black turnout — and therefore Democratic turnout. A federal judge tossed North Carolina’s law, saying it intended to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” but after the law was repealed, counties were able to implement early voting as they saw fit. In one county, the New York Times reports, the number of early voting locations dropped from 16 in 2012 to one this year.

In a polarized era where “black” and “Democrat” are often considered interchangeable in a political context, the line between anti-black and anti-Democrat gets blurry. It’s worth noting that an unnamed source told Bloomberg that the Trump campaign was explicitly hoping to suppress turnout among black voters this year.

Efforts by pro-Trump forces to “monitor” polling places to root out “fraud” (which is essentially nonexistent as a factor in elections) have already been the subject of legal action. Longtime Trump ally Roger Stone’s clumsy “voter-watch” effort has been cited in several legal complaints as violating regulations against voter suppression. This is tricky territory for the Republican Party, which is legally prohibited from similar activity under a consent decree enacted in response to efforts to disenfranchise black voters in 1981. If the party is found to be encouraging voter suppression based on race, those involved could be found in contempt of court.

Among the statutes that are allegedly being violated, per those complaints? The provisions of the Ku Klux Klan Act.