When Donald J. Trump’s campaign recently began to enroll “election observers” to monitor the vote this November, the news media reacted with shocked surprise. Politico called the move “unprecedented in a presidential election,” and others predicted that it could lead to voter intimidation, or worse, at the polls. But we don’t have to guess at what partisan election observers might look like. There’s a long history of such behavior at American elections, much of it quite ugly. At an 1859 election in Baltimore, “challengers” snatched ballots from voters, sparking citywide riots that left two dozen beaten, four stabbed and eight shot. The Baltimore Sun complained that many citizens considered such violence “ordinary incidents of a popular election.” They were right: Intimidation and violence were a regular part of the electoral process. We’ve come a long way, for sure — but with angry partisanship and even political violence on the rise, it’s worth asking what happened, and how we can avoid the same thing today.
The Constitution sets out no rules for how Americans should vote, so throughout our history political parties have improvised. As America expanded the right to vote during the 1800s, most states adopted mass-distributed paper ballots, but left it to the parties to print those ballots and get them into the wooden ballot boxes sitting in town squares or saloons.
This was an era of highly contested politics. On Election Day most men in a community gathered around the ballot box, turning the polling place into an awkward combination of a town hall and a fraternity gantlet. (Women mostly stayed home that day, and black men, when they could vote, tended to do so early in the morning.)
But for all that America did to enfranchise unprecedented numbers of citizens, there was no comprehensive way of keeping track of them. With few records and mass migration, voters struggled to prove that they were legal. Partisans could not escape the feeling — often accurate — that the other side was stealing the vote. So competing organizations began to “police the polls.”