The continuing tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic has offered an unexpected opportunity to change American voting fundamentally through the adoption of vote-by-mail policies. President Donald Trump, however, is sounding the alarm - or, more accurately, the dog whistle.
On Thursday, he tweeted that mail voting was a "catastrophic failure" with no accurate count, warning that 2020 would be "the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history". He even floated delaying the election, a prospect denounced by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Vote-by-mail solutions have long made sense as a way of ensuring people's voting rights, and they make even more sense now, when they would protect citizens from exposure to Covid-19 at the polls.
Trump's opposition to them must be understood as the most recent act in a long, consistent historical drama defined by the unremitting commitment to impeding non-white voters from exercising their right to political participation. This political tradition dates back to the advent of black suffrage and the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.
In the wake of the Civil War, black men began exercising their right to vote in the south. Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison was awed by "this wonderful, quiet, sudden, transformation of four millions of human beings from... the auction-block to the ballot-box." Southern whites and ex-Confederates, however, were largely horrified at this change. It was a "transformation" for them. They lost their monopoly on political control.
These new voters brought formerly enslaved people to public office. In "Freedom's Lawmakers," historian Eric Foner estimates that 2,000 African American men served at the local, state and federal levels of government during Reconstruction. This was a complete reversal of the social order. Local police forces were no longer entirely white, and several black Southerners became election officials. Black hands counted white votes and vice versa.
In this period, the Ku Klux Klan formed, dedicated to terrorising African Americans, often with the aim of keeping them from the polls. In 1892, the 'Chicago Tribune' interviewed an anonymous Wall Street banker who had been a high-ranking member of the terrorist organisation during its early prominence in the south after the war. He was unequivocal about its founding purpose: "[It] formed to guard against negro supremacy in the south... A presidential election was near at hand and it was of the highest importance for the whites to take such steps as to prevent the negros from asserting their superiority of numbers so as to gain control of the southern states."
This banker boasted of the success of these measures: Southern politicians had effectively disenfranchised black men. Pointedly, given President Trump's reliance on the phrase, the banker described the KKK as "a vigilance committee for the purpose of preserving law and order".
While the Grant administration crushed the Klan, any dream of biracial democracy in the south faded. Grant's successors cared little about preventing anti-black violence in the south or enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment.
As reconstruction ended, starting in 1877, southern whites began to take more steps to unravel black voting rights. They regained power, often through violence and intimidation, and instituted measures like literacy tests, poll taxes and property qualifications to keep black people from voting. The number of eligible black voters subsequently plummeted.
After the turn of the 20th century, the Klan resurfaced and sought to make voting even more difficult and time-consuming. While the Klan conjures up images of violence and brutality, Klansmen used other tactics to suppress black voting as well. In August 1922, the 'Topeka State Journal' ran a story titled: "Scared Away From Polls: Klan Cards From Air Frighten Negros At Oklahoma City."
The cards dropped from airplanes warned: "Do not attempt to vote unless you are legally registered and can vote for clean law enforcement."
Here, one can see the beginnings of the strategy of accusing African Americans of voting illegally. The 'Topeka Journal' also reported: "Ku Klux Klan officials have given notice that representatives of that organisation will be on hand to take careful note of the voting procedure at all polling places."
Through poll-watching and vote-challenging, KKK members hoped to convince African American voters that it was not worth the trouble and potential danger to vote.
One 'New York Tribune' report described more of the Klan's schemes to curtail black voting: "In southern Alabama... If the blacks are present and likely to vote in such numbers as to 'threaten the overthrow of society' or give cause of alarm to the leading white citizens, the offered vote of some ignorant negro is challenged." The goal was to keep a long line of African Americans waiting to vote to ensure that "when the hour for closing the polls comes, there has not been sufficient time for the full Negro Republican vote to be polled."
By poll-watching, vote-challenging and configuring administrative mazes, Democratic officials and KKK members diminished the number of black votes cast. Such tactics were staples of the south until the 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed them.
Over the years since 1965, voter-suppression tactics have returned in forms such as voter ID qualifications and voter-roll purges that force citizens through administrative hoops to reach the ballot box. These policies have been shown to disproportionately affect minority Americans and often intentionally so, because they tend to vote Democratic.
Regardless of whether the motives more recently have been racial or partisan, the concern driving these policies, old and new, is the same: If blacks vote in full force, conservative leaders would lose. Ex-Confederates had seen the power of black votes; they had felt the sting of more representative democracy and were determined to erode it. Today, Trump and GOP politicians regularly get caught admitting the same. Of Democrats' Covid-19 relief proposals, the president rambled that they "had things - levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you'd never have a Republican elected again."
Voter suppression has been a political plague of American doing. It must be assessed for what it is: a subversion of American democracy. Trump is going further by extending the attempt to quell non-white voting to anyone who might vote against him.
Perhaps, amid the seemingly perpetual darkness of current politics, there is one of the president's tweets that we can find hope in: "NOVEMBER 3RD." (© Washington Post)
Griffin Black is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Cambridge, where he is a Paul Mellon fellow at Clare College