It seemed inevitable after evidence of voting irregularities appeared in the contested race in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District: Republicans used the problems to push for tighter voting laws last month. Voting restrictions in the name of fraud prevention have been at the forefront of Donald Trump’s presidency ever since he claimed in the wake of his election that millions of fraudulent votes had been cast against him and he created a commission to investigate voter fraud. (Never mind that the commission failed to document any evidence of widespread fraud, or that North Carolina’s issues appeared to stem from impropriety on the part of the Republican candidate’s campaign, not voters.) But raising fears of fraud in order to make it harder for people—particularly people fitting certain demographic profiles—to vote didn’t start with this administration, or even in the past 100 years. As Harvard University historian Alexander Keyssar lays out in his 2000 book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, the tactic dates back to the early decades of the 19th century. Throughout US history, politicians and activists ginned up stories about fraud in order to keep their opponents from the polls. “Legislative debates were sprinkled heavily with tales of ballot box stuffing, miscounts, hordes of immigrants lined up to vote as the machine instructed, men trooping from precinct to precinct to vote early and often,” he writes.
The most pervasive fraud that was actually occurring in the late 19th century was in the South, where African Americans were denied the right to vote through vigilante violence and ballot manipulation. “We are a majority here,” a black man from Georgia testified to the Senate in 1883, “but you may vote till your eyes drop out or your tongue drops out, and you can’t count your colored man in out of them boxes; there’s a hole gets in the bottom of the boxes some way and lets out our votes.” The unfolding scandal in North Carolina, where it appears African American voters were the victims, “certainly fits with the long tradition with trying to suppress the black vote in the South,” Keyssar tells Mother Jones.
In the late 19th century, white Southerners began to realize that the easiest way to disenfranchise African Americans was through legal means like poll taxes and literacy tests. Meanwhile, fear of widespread voter fraud prompted restrictions on voting around the country, often employed to hinder immigrants, minorities, and poor and working-class voters.