The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More people than we thought get excluded when the right to vote isn’t protected

What an 1870 Census question tells us about voter suppression during Reconstruction.

Former NBA basketball player Josh Powell, center, joins voting rights advocates demonstrating in front of the Georgia Governor's Mansion in Atlanta on Thursday. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The 2020 election saw the largest vote totals ever, for both the Democratic and Republican parties. Because of the coronavirus threat, voting hours were expanded, more options to vote by mail were offered and voters were accommodated in their cars, in basketball arenas and in their neighborhoods.

Broadening access to voting helped Democrats overcome electoral disadvantages that mean the party must win the popular vote by a substantial margin to win the presidency through the electoral college. Yet, there were surprises too, especially in the strong showing for President Donald Trump among Latino voters, and a better-than-expected result for him among young Black men.

Experts have noted that mail voting does not fall along party lines. But we are now seeing a push by Republican state legislators to eliminate no-excuse vote by mail and to curtail early voting, among other restrictive measures. They are banking on the idea that keeping people away from the polls is the only way they can win. In his first speech in Congress, Sen. Rafael Warnock (D-Ga.) made an apt historical comparison, calling it “Jim Crow in new clothes,” linking this effort to late 19th century state laws that stripped Black men of their newly won right to vote. In those years, voter suppression laws, enforced by white supremacist violence, effectively kept Black men from the polls and maintained a solidly White Democratic South.

The effort to restrict access to the vote in the Jim Crow era was actually even more robust and purposeful: Black men were denied the right to vote, but so too were women, Native Americans and immigrants from Ireland, China, as well as European and Scandinavian countries. Revisiting this history reminds Americans of the urgency of expanding and protecting voting rights today.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments enfranchised Black men. And yet, ex-Confederates and Democrats in the North and South worked to reclaim the United States as a “White man’s country.” To do so, these Democrats began whittling away at voting rights protections.

By 1870, state-level victories for Democrats in Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee meant that the enfranchisement of formerly enslaved people was already under threat. Federal troops in the South helped bolster opportunities for Black southerners to vote and get an education, but Republicans were concerned about northern moderates who feared the consequences of a long occupation. That year was a midterm election, but also a census year. So, Republicans turned to the census for help enforcing Black voting rights.

The 1870 Census contained a question never asked before or since: Question 20, “Is the person a male citizen of the United States of 21 years or upwards whose right to vote is denied or abridged on grounds other than ‘rebellion or other crime?’ ” Data collected from this question would be used to decrease states’ representation in Congress, if there was evidence that voting rights had been denied. The question, Republicans believed, would create a vivid testimony of the disfranchisement of ex-slaves, voters who the Republican Party knew could help sustain Reconstruction. The results could then be used to bolster their claims for the continued relevance of their party’s project to build a new, multiracial democracy.

It didn’t work. At least 1.25 million people in the South were not counted in the census and large northern cities reported similar problems. After examining the raw results, census Superintendent Francis Amasa Walker concluded that 40,380 men had been disfranchised — far fewer than Republicans expected to find, given the violence that occurred across the South as Black men tried to vote. The majority of those reporting that their voting rights had been abridged were White men living in Missouri, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The census, imagined as a tool for protecting Black men’s voting rights and for securing Republican representation in the postwar South, turned out to be ineffective.

What the census did, do, however was serve as a snapshot of popular attitudes about voting rights at a time when that right was highly valued and strongly contested.

Using new data attained through IPUMS USA at the University of Minnesota we have been able to access fully computerized counts from the 1870 Census ignored in Walker’s report. In fact, 125,989 men claimed their right to vote was denied — answering “yes” to Question #20 — nearly three times as many as Walker had reported. Walker either miscounted, or as in other places in the report, had simply replaced the actual numbers with his own estimates.

The actual numbers tell a story about how disenfranchisement cut across demographic groups and party lines, however. More than 22,000 of the men claiming disfranchisement were born in Ireland, 2,340 were of Chinese descent, and 54 were Native American. Others hailed from Germany, Scotland, Norway and Sweden.

More than just curiosities, this new data offers us the testimony of individuals who believed they did, or should, have the right to vote but that that vote had been stolen from them — whether or not a U.S. official or U.S. law would agree.

Although enumerators were instructed only to ask men Question #20, women shared the desire to vote — in fact, some insisted that they already had the right to do so. When a census enumerator knocked on her door in July 1870, Victoria Woodhull had already announced her run for the presidency; six months later, Woodhull addressed Congress to hammer home the point that she believed women already had the right to vote, according to the U.S. Constitution. This argument, too, reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected it.

The 1870 Census did not help Republicans in their effort to protect voting rights. Without federal enforcement actions to ensure access to the ballot box, Democratic state legislatures “redeeming” their states from Reconstruction made it increasingly hard to vote: grandfather clauses, poll taxes, tests like guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar. Black voters were disenfranchised while women, Native Americans and other marginalized groups were also kept from the polls for decades until the suffrage movement and civil rights activism forced a change in these voting rights restrictions.

What is the lesson for the aftermath of the 2020 election? With turnout at an all-time high, modern-day Republicans in state legislatures (often with the opposite beliefs of their forebears) are trying to bring Jim Crow back to voting. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 200 laws have been introduced in 43 states in the past five months, restricting early voting, terminating no-excuse mail-in voting and prohibiting voting on Sundays — a stricture aimed at programs such as Souls to the Polls that has been used effectively to turn out Black voters.

As the 2020 election demonstrated, when voting is made easier, many more people vote, changing the calculus of who gets heard in our democracy. U.S. history is filled with the struggles of those who were denied the vote — whether they are remembered for their bold stand in court cases, in civil rights marches or simply attesting in the 1870 Census to the fact that they were denied the vote. Federal guarantees of access to the ballot were a key goal of Reconstruction; perhaps 2021 will be the year when those guarantees finally receive enforcement through federal laws.

Note: Joseph Anthony Pacifico of the Columbia University Data Science Institute Data for Good Program contributed to the statistical analysis.