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July 15, 2024

True Reformers Hall, the first building designed, financed and built by Blacks after Reconstruction is dedicated in 1903 in DC.

Rigged Elections, an American Tradition

POSTED: October 24, 2016, 7:00 am

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People of conscience can all agree that Donald Trump is a demagogue with no filter who is prone to say the most outlandish things to attract attention and rally his base. His latest tirade claiming he could lose due to the rigging of the election (presumably by Democrats) is shameless and baseless, and an act of desperation. What we should not do, however, and what further discredits this country is when we ignore the larger truth and claim some form of moral purity that we have never possessed.

Our elections system has been rigged from the outset. The manner in which those gathered in Philadelphia ignored the human rights of slaves and compromised true democratic representation is well documented. Assigning slaves 3/5th the value of whites for representation purposes and then ceding to the demands of slave holding states for political power, marked this Republic as deficient from the beginning. To suggest some sort of democratic exceptionalism is a blatant mischaracterization of a history of elected government in which every effort has been made to suppress the powerless and people of color.

Even after a bloody Civil War, the basis of which was the enslavement of Africans, and a brief period of Reconstruction, an entire apparatus was created to deny the franchise to African-Americans and thus, rig elections. The imposition of the poll tax, literacy tests, the grandfather clause and the use of violence to intimidate Blacks were all devices to fix elections. In fact, it can be truthfully said that every election from the period following Reconstruction until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was rigged by law because the government facilitated the disfranchisement of African-Americans. In fact, we would not have required special legislation to enforce a constitutional right if elections had been clean. If you purposely deny citizens their right to vote and exclude them from the process, you are rigging elections.

These practices have continued to present day, with some incidents fairly obvious and others less so, but more nuanced and harder to detect.

I witnessed it firsthand in New Jersey in 1996 in Essex County, the state’s second most populous county with the largest concentration of African-Americans. The city of Newark is in Essex County and it can be said that no Democrat running for statewide office – Governor or U.S. Senator – can win without winning this county. On the ballot for county executive that year was the dynamic, young African-American mayor of the city of East Orange, Cardell Cooper. He was a rising star in the party and an African-American who was on a trajectory to the governor’s office. That is, if he could win the county executive seat. In the primary he faced off against a longtime white party operative with union ties, Tom Giblin. Incredibly, but really not so for Jersey politics, the primary ended in a tie. Yes, a tie. Cooper eventually prevailed after spending money on lawyers but his own party worked against him, including some Black elected officials who feared his rise, and he lost in the general election to a conservative white Republican. The winner, Jim Treffinger, would later get indicted on obstruction of justice and mail fraud, go to jail and take residence in the retirement home for many New Jersey politicians – the federal penitentiary.

“The influx of money in campaigns has created a sharp distinction between a voter and a constituent. Voters today are citizens who cast their ballots, while constituents of elected officials are more and more the folks who write large checks. Voters get newsletters. Constituents get access and benefits.”

What the 2000 presidential election exposed was the vulnerability of our elections system. Though it can be debated whether the Florida debacle truly cost Al Gore the election, considering his losing his home state and that of the president under which he served as vice president. What cannot be disputed is that votes were not counted in Florida and that might have impacted state and local races. We also know that the Florida Secretary of State at the time, Katherine Harris, a Republican appointee, purged the voter rolls before the 2000 election in a key state governed by the brother of the Republican Party nominee. What is also clear is that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a political ruling when it declared its opinion in Gore v. Bush applicable to only that disputed election.

No matter the opinion you hold of Donald Trump and the fact that his “election rigging” rhetoric is self-serving, our political history is marked by extensive efforts to alter the outcomes of elections at all levels of our government structure. Whether it was voting the dead in Cook County Illinois, bribery in Louisiana or the antics of the Hague machine in Jersey City New Jersey or Boss Tweed in New York City, there is ample evidence that elections in this country have been rigged. We have elected people to public office based upon systemic fraud, not the actions of individual voters, but institutional contrivances to secure power. To suggest otherwise is to deny the truth.

Present efforts to introduce Voter ID, oppose early voting and intimidate immigrants is nothing more than an attempt to rig elections. Those efforts have been the instruments of the Republican Party. Legislative redistricting is used by both major parties to gain political advantage, often without concern to the representation constituents really need. Lines are drawn that fossilizes election outcomes by protecting incumbency and partisan control. Alternative parties or independent candidates stand little chance of success when the process of drawing districts is controlled by the two major parties. The influx of money in campaigns has created a sharp distinction between a voter and a constituent. Voters today are citizens who cast their ballots, while constituents of elected officials are more and more the folks who write large checks. Voters get newsletters. Constituents get access and benefits. If large segments of the population are being targeted to exclude them from the electoral process, then we have a system today that continues to suppress the vote and alter electoral outcomes.

In the heat of a presidential election we would be mindful of our nation’s history and the efforts that persist today to affect the composition of elected offices across the country.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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