As Donald Trump continues to contest and hopes to overturn the 2020 election with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, it is worth remembering that the United States has a long history of respecting the peaceful transfer of power, even when fraud was not just suspected, but obviously endemic to the system. The rowdiness of the 19th century polling place has been well documented, perhaps by none better than the historian Richard Bensel who wrote that “The American polling place was . . . a kind of sorcerer’s workshop in which the minions of opposing parties turned money into whisky and whisky into votes.”
The 19th century polling place (which was often a tavern) was a site of active contest, where party agents led debates, but also worked to sway voters with bribes and booze. More violent types of persuasion were also routine, including riots, threats, and kidnappings. Ballot boxes were stolen by violent mobs. Some suspect that Edgard Allen Poe—who was found on the brink of death outside of a polling place on election day–was the victim of cooping, a common practice in which men were kidnapped, drugged, and forced to vote at multiple polling places.
After the Civil War, Northern Republicans briefly took an interest in the issue of voter intimidation amid growing fears that their black allies in the South would be disenfranchised by violent paramilitary groups. However, the Supreme Court undercut federal protection for voters and by the late 1870s many bourgeois northerners had grown sympathetic to white terrorism in the South, as fears that their own working class would use the ballot to overturn property rights undercut faith in universal manhood suffrage.
The disfunction of the 19th century polling place was rooted in a system of public voting that, in most states, required citizens to acquire pre-printed ballots from partisan officials and then deliver the conspicuous, color-coded ballot to the polling place. Voters, the theory stated, should be proud to announce to the world who they were voting for. In practice, the lack of privacy made it possible for party officials to use bribes and threats of violence to control the electorate that they supposedly represented.
If growing inequality undercut faith in democracy in some circles, it also inspired reformers who understood that fixing the economic system required a functional democracy. Throughout the 1880s, Henry George had gathered support with plans for a land tax. He told urban tenants facing rising rents that he would tax the full rental value of land, forcing it onto the market, reducing rents, and providing the government with the funds to offer programs like free college education and free public transit. In 1886, the Central Labor Union in New York City recruited George to run for mayor, and he waged a vigorous campaign, speaking five or six times throughout the city. He developed a devoted following among the city’s working class and on election day outran the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt.
George lost to his democratic rival who had the support of the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall regime, which skimmed off the top of both the city’s budget and its criminal underworld. While it is hard to determine how much fraud occurred during the election, Tammany’s reputation was such that many observers assumed George would have won in a fair election. As far away as Germany, Frederick Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto, was certain that George had the election stolen from him by “a colossal mass of fraud.”
In his concession speech, George refrained from challenging the validity of the election. But he began a push for electoral reform, forming a permanent organization to promote the “Australian ballot,” a term he claimed to have coined. The Australian ballot was a secret ballot, printed and distributed by the government. It is how the U.S. votes today. The commonsense notion rapidly took off with The New York Times reporting that, in Brooklyn, the cause was “started by Georgeites, nourished by prohibitionists, aided by Democrats, and abetted by Republicans.” Two years later, in 1888, Louisville became the first city in the country to enact the secret ballot. Arthur Wallace, who proposed the bill, said he had been inspired by George to propose the bill.
The Australian Ballot developed a wide spectrum of support in the U.S. By the twentieth century, the Australian ballot was standard throughout most of the country, though there were some hold outs, particularly in the South, where fair elections were—to put it lightly—not a priority.
While George would never get his single tax on land, he and his supporters reshaped American democracy in their efforts to get it. In Oregon, William U’Ren, the so-called “father of direct legislation” led the effort to establish the referendum, recall, and initiative, believing these they would allow the people to sidestep entrenched interests and constitutional hurdles to taxing land. U’Ren noted “all the work we have done for Direct Legislation has been done with the Single Tax in view.” In Cleveland, mayor Tom Johnson, George’s closest friend and advisor, led the charge for urban self-governance to shake off the shackles of a state government dominated by rural voters who were hostile to taxing real estate.
These reforms did not necessarily have the impact supporters hoped they would. Direct legislation, for example, has been criticized for being easily manipulated by elite interests. However, George’s supporters did have their day, developing footholds in urban governments in Cleveland, Houston, and Portland where they shifted the burden of taxation onto landed property to fund urban development. In 1906, Lawson Purdy, who had introduced Henry George at his last public address, was appointed President of New York City’s Department of Taxes and proceeded to impose heavy new taxes on central real estate in Manhattan. Historian Daniel London has argued that these taxes proved popular even with real estate stakeholders, who believed they were essential to constructing the urban transit infrastructure that reaffirmed New York City’s key place in the nation’s economic life. Henry George might not have been elected in 1886, but his ideas ultimately helped shape New York City.
What’s the point? That political and economic reform are inextricably linked. A system in which a candidate can lose an election by three million votes and still ascend to the presidency is one in which the people’s economic interests are unlikely to be represented. Elections based on places rather than people give declining communities veto power over the nation’s future and thereby enshrine the politics of social decay as the highest law of the land. In the end though, the political reforms that George’s supporters worked for probably did less to advance their ideas than the fact that they had fought for them. While Americans are generally less democratic than they like to believe, democracy is the most egalitarian element of our political culture. No movement to overturn elite interests will progress far unless it is synonymous in the public mind with democracy.