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(CNN)As a curator of political history at the Smithsonian, I've spent years studying the bad old days of American politics. Leafing through contested election trial transcripts, constable's reports and boxes of fraudulent ballots, I've studied the voter suppression and violence that was once a common feature of our democracy in the 19th century.
It always seemed distant to me, with a consoling "it used to be worse" appeal. But recently, this past has been reanimated by new, partisan state laws
designed to make it harder to vote.
Jon GrinspanHaving spent years researching how similar policies affected democracy in the 19th century, I can say: America, please don't go down this road again. We already know what happens if we do.
In fact, there are a few crucial lessons to learn from similar efforts in the past.
The first lesson is that tightening access to the vote hurts democracy for everyone. History shows that individual state laws can greatly encourage, or discourage, popular political participation nationwide, fundamentally altering American political culture. Consider the arc of American democracy from the 1820s to the 1920s. Beginning in the 1820s, most states stopped requiring that White males own property to vote, opening voting
access to working class and younger voters. Turnouts shot up from roughly 25% of eligible voters
in the 1820s, to over 80% in 1840, 1860 and 1876. Read More
We saddled up to make sure Native Americans got to voteAfter the Civil War, African-American men won the right to vote, joining in popular elections to elect former slaves as sheriffs, congressmen and governors. Though women's suffrage was still far off, many Americans believed that they lived in a progressive era of expanding "pure democracy," with old racial and class hierarchies and voting restrictions being swept away by a populist tide. But this wave crested around the centennial in 1876, and for the next 50 years, so-called "reformers" worked to restrict access again. In the South, White supremacists introduced new laws designed to bring about what one White Virginia legislator called, "the elimination of the negro from the politics of this state." New state constitutions kept most Black men from voting; the number of African American voters in Louisiana, for instance, crashed from 130,000 in 1896 to just 1,342 by 1904. Lynchings often enforced this new disenfranchisement with a chilling message to Black would-be voters and activists. In those same years, faith in democracy also plummeted across the nation. Although never experiencing anything like the brutality of Southern politics, after the contentious presidential election of 1876 many Northern elites began to denounce majority rule in politics. In the Gilded Age, well-to-do Americans looked out at the big, populist democracy with mass participation by working class and immigrant voters, and began to mutter about the "public pest" of popular voting rights. Northern states passed their own laws designed with what one observer at the time termed the "secret cause" of discouraging poorer voters, and well-connected politicians noted a "reaction against democracy" in elite circles.
A Confederate flag at the Capitol summons Americas demonsTurnout crumbled. Between 1896 and 1924, participation plunged from 80% back to less than 50%, and remained mediocre for much of the next century. African-Americans and working class whites -- the populations promised the most by the "pure democracy" optimism after the Civil War -- were hit the hardest. The lesson is clear -- a culture of participation can be built, as between 1820 and 1876, and it can also be destroyed, as over the next 50 years. Another clear lesson from the 19th century is that election losers' claims of fraud are an easy weapon to reduce turnout. While there is no credible evidence of significant fraud in American elections today, there certainly was plenty back in the 1800s. But what is most striking is how similar the unsubstantiated claims of fraud made by White Southern Democrats made against new Black voters after the Civil War -- or lodged by losing parties in the North -- sound to what we hear today. One senator who complained, in 1874, that conspiracy theorists treated every elected official "as if he were a vulgar trickster," sounds distressingly like the Texas election official who worried last month about "the default assumption that county election officials are bad actors."
What Jim Crow looks like in 2021Perhaps even more menacingly familiar than the new state laws restricting voting are the efforts to reintroduce partisan poll watchers on Election Day. This is the new development that causes me the most concern, because the record is so clear about the harm of turning polling places into partisan battle-domes. Throughout most of the 1800s, partisan poll watchers, "challengers," "shoulder hitters" and "bludgeon men" patrolled polling places, using intimidation, "knock downs" and "awlings" (literally stabbing voters with awls) to swing elections. Often, partisan poll watchers clashed with rivals from the other side, as in one municipal election in Baltimore in 1859, which left eight shot, four stabbed and two dozen beaten across the city. Americans grew used to post-election reports of what headlines called such "outrages at the polls." Enabling partisan poll-watchers inevitably draws similar activists from the other side, launching a spiraling arms race at elections. And as many of these laws are being introduced in battleground states, like Florida, Texas and Georgia, it's not hard to imagine rival poll-watchers clashing on Election Day and making it impossible for ordinary voters to safely cast a ballot.Get our free weekly newsletter
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After a career studying the "dirty tricks" of the 19th century in the archives, I'm amazed to see them dreamt up again in the 21st. Of course, it's not as if these latter-day suppressors are doing their historical research, they are merely falling back on the logic of partisanship, as were the Democrats and Republicans who introduced these ideas 150 years ago. As long as legislators value a win for their tribe over a win for the majority, they will continue to get dangerously creative on Election Day. One of the strengths of American democracy is its continuity: we've operated under the same basic system of government for longer than nearly any other nation on earth. Which means we have a deep record of what reforms help -- and what reforms harm -- the cause of popular self-government. We've learned too much about voting rights and voter suppression over the centuries to blunder into some of our old, ugly missteps again today. By this point, we should know better.
News Source: CNN
after the civil war
on election day
claims of fraud
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Mayor Lori Lightfoot Backs Declaring Juneteenth An Official City Holiday Starting Next Year
CHICAGO (CBS) — After previously arguing it would be too costly to do so, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday announced she now supports making Juneteenth an official city holiday, marking the end of slavery in the United States.
“Black people are inextricably tied to America’s founding and foundation, making days like Juneteenth all the more important to observe. The Black Caucus and many other community orgs have pushed on this for years,” the mayor wrote in a tweet. “That’s why I am proud to announce that pending City Council approval, the City of Chicago will recognize Juneteenth as an official city holiday by 2022. Black history is American history.” READ MORE:
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The move, which requires City Council approval, would make June 19th the 13th official city holiday; along with New Year’s Day, Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, President’s Day, Pulaski Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.
Juneteenth marks the anniversary of June 19, 1865, the day Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished, freeing the last of the slaves still being held in the Confederacy, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Slavery might have officially ended in 1865, but we are still grappling with the vestiges of that original sin here today; from historic neighborhood disinvestment to institutionalized racism that holds our people back from realizing their God-given potential, just because of the color of their skin,” Lightfoot said.
The mayor said most history books make only a passing reference, if any, to Juneteenth, and she said that must change. READ MORE:
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“To erase the history of Juneteenth is not only a great disservice to Black folks, both here in Chicago and across the country, but a great disservice to our collective memory,” she said. “I, like many others, didn’t even know anything about Juneteenth until I was an adult. And that’s because it has never been treated with the reverence that it should be.”
Last summer, when the City Council voted to declare Juneteenth as a “day of observance” in Chicago, Lightfoot argued making it an official city holiday would be too costly, especially during the pandemic. Even supporters at the time acknowledged it would cost as much as $100 million to make Juneteenth an official city holiday, providing another paid day off for city workers.
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), who was among several aldermen who were pushing to make Juneteenth a city holiday last year, thanked Lightfoot for her support.
“Justice and healing require truth. Juneteenth is about Black liberation, it’s about Black freedom. Our city like our nation still has so much work to do to reckon with our past and current systemic racism,” she said. “Some would have us ignore our history, gloss over it, in service to just moving on. They tell us that our calls to acknowledge the wrongs that we face are dividing us. But don’t heed their call. Do not be silent, for there can be no healing without truth and reconciliation. As Ida B. Wells said, the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them. Celebrating Juneteenth is an opportunity for us all to shine that light. Second, celebration can be an act of resistance.”
Lightfoot’s support for an official Juneteenth holiday in Chicago comes as Gov. JB Pritzker is expected to sign legislation this week making it an official state holiday. MORE NEWS:
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