Power  /  Antecedent

President Trump’s False Claims About Election Fraud Are Dangerous

Trump’s campaign to delegitimize the vote has a familiar ring. It evokes an egregious example of election fraud in the 1890s.

As state election officials counted ballots across the country, President Trump marched into the East Room of the White House early Wednesday morning and falsely declared fraud in the 2020 election. Later in the day, his campaign filed a lawsuit to stop the counting of votes in Michigan, suggesting that something was amiss with the electoral process — perhaps because his vote total trailed Joe Biden’s. His campaign also mounted legal action in Pennsylvania and Georgia. The president’s baseless and hypocritical claims were merely his latest efforts to undermine public trust in the presidential vote.

Trump’s campaign to delegitimize the vote — and the way it has been amplified by media allies and spread across social media — has a familiar ring. It evokes an egregious example of election fraud in the 1890s, when White Democrats in the Deep South complained bitterly of Black voting fraud to cover up their own election rigging. The Southern Democrats and their allies in the press intimidated voters, stuffed ballot boxes and stole elections to turn back a surprising foe: a coalition of White and Black farmers and workers who had suffered grievously in the agricultural depression of the 1880s and, for a brief historical moment, had put aside racial animus to create a powerful political force across the South.

This history reminds us of the danger embedded in Trump’s fraudulent claims. The campaigns of fraud and violence that relied heavily on media propaganda and manipulation purposefully and repeatedly subverted the democratic process, ultimately resulting in deadly violence and decades of disenfranchisement.

This strategy had its first major success in Alabama in the early 1890s, when the state’s Democratic Party establishment faced a fierce insurgency from an aggressive and well-organized biracial coalition. Populist organizers in the state used their press to unite Black and White farmers and some of the new industrial workers in the state’s mining district to form a working majority of voters. Led by former agricultural commissioner Reuben Kolb, this new coalition challenged the Bourbon Democrats, the White conservatives who ran the state in alliance with the railroads and mining companies that were reshaping Alabama’s economy, mostly at the expense of poor Black and White residents.

As the 1892 governor’s race approached, both sides turned to the state’s partisan press to wage the battle for public opinion. Led by Jack Baltzell’s Montgomery Alliance Herald, Joseph Manning’s Alabama Pioneer and aggressive Black editors such as Charles Hendley Jr. at the Huntsville Gazette, the reform press rallied farmers and some workers to join the struggle. For these populist editors, the phrase “free vote and fair count” became a mantra, often appearing on the nameplate of their weekly newspapers.

Kolb stressed the shared economic interests of Black and White farmers and workers, and he defended Black voting rights and vowed to end election fraud by the Democrats. Some of his supporters were more aggressive: “I am in favor of killing them if they don’t count it right,” Birmingham lawyer Peyton G. Bowman told a crowd of more than 8,000 White and Black supporters in Opelika. “Let the colored man stand up for his race and vote for a free ballot and civil liberty.”

But the populist and African American newspapers lacked the reach of the established conservative press, particularly the Montgomery Daily Advertiser in the state’s capital. Backed by a secret subsidy from the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, Advertiser editor William Wallace Screws launched a vicious campaign against the populist insurgency in an attempt to delegitimize their demand to participate in a fair election.

Screws’s Daily Advertiser accused Kolb of “negro vote begging,” and he frequently charged the populist campaign of buying African American votes. In one account, Screws claimed two Black “Kolbites” had been traveling through majority-Black counties handing out cash. These men “had what it took to make the mare go,” Screws wrote, “and they flashed it openly.”

As Election Day neared, the New York Times declared that Kolb and his populist reformers could win in Alabama, but Screws told his White readers not to worry because “Kolbism” would be defeated by the “invincible white supremacy Democrats.”

Screws was confident for a reason. He knew the white-supremacist Democrats had plans to cheat, and in a big way. Both contemporary observers and scholars believe Kolb received more votes at the polls in 1892. But in the final tally, a surprising number of votes for the Democratic incumbent came from the swath of central and south Alabama counties known as the Black Belt, where African Americans were in the vast majority. Kolb led his opponent by 15,000 votes in the White-majority counties outside the Black Belt, but the conservative Democrat outpolled Kolb by 26,000 votes in the Black Belt counties. Why? Because White landowners in those counties simply prevented Black agricultural workers from voting and cast ballots under their names. Many of them admitted it, proudly.

Kolb lost again after more chicanery in 1894. This time, he and 200 armed allies marched on the capital on Inauguration Day. But the crisis passed, and by 1896, the Democrats had begun to lure White farmers back to the fold. In the end, White Democratic leaders and their newspapers played on racial loyalty to split the biracial populist coalition.

By this time, Democrats had manipulated the issue of election fraud itself. The Democrat who won the 1896 governor’s race, Joseph F. Johnston, blamed the problem on African Americans, not on the White Democrats who actually stole votes. Without Black suffrage, Johnston argued, Whites could compete against one another freely without granting Black voters the power to determine the winner. The solution, he argued, was denying Blacks their democratic rights.

Five years later, voters ratified new and restrictive suffrage laws that did just that. These laws evaded the 15th Amendment and eliminated African Americans from Alabama politics for the next six decades. In the Advertiser, Screws declared the new Jim Crow voting laws a “glorious victory” for White supremacy. To enforce these measures, White Democrats employed legal and extralegal means, including lynching and the threat of imprisonment in the state’s corrupt and unspeakably cruel convict leasing system.

Their tactics — to manipulate voting returns and later blame Black voters for the fraud — avoided national attention and federal investigation because of the aggressive campaign by the state’s Democratic press to obscure these actions. It shows the power of mass media outlets, working in concert with political allies, to shape public narratives and influence political outcomes. In fact, Trump’s efforts to undermine the vote count in the 2020 election will succeed only if his media allies are successful in justifying and normalizing his claims.