Electoral disputes stretch back to the nation’s creation. Widespread voter suppression, however, has a particularly ugly history, dating to the aftermath of the Civil War, when authorities in the former Confederacy physically barred, intimidated, or procedurally precluded newly freed slaves from voting.
In 1865, the federal government enacted Reconstruction, a series of measures to reunite the republic while combating efforts to resurrect white supremacy. Federal troops oversaw the reestablishment of state governments, and many former Confederates were temporarily barred from voting or holding elected office. Freed Blacks and newly arrived Northerners took over state and local government, and soon Blacks held many elected positions in state and national government. By 1877, support for Reconstruction was weak, and a compromise ensuring the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president over Democrat Samuel Tilden ended Reconstruction. President Hayes ordered any federal troops remaining in the South to return to their barracks. White Southerners then seized the opportunity to reestablish the antebellum social order.
But freed Blacks, who constituted majorities in many jurisdictions across the South, had a tool denied slaves: the vote. To reassert power, white supremacists had to neutralize Black voters, who leaned Republican in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln. Retaking offices ranging from seats in Congress to sheriff, white Democrats worked to suppress the Black vote, sometimes by administrative feint, often by fear and violence. African-Americans sticking with the GOP saw their crops, barns, and houses burned. Many were whipped or lynched. By one estimate, 150 African-Americans were killed during the 1876 South Carolina gubernatorial campaign alone. After federal troops departed the South, the region’s election managers—the officials responsible for keeping elections fair and accurate—were likely to be white Democrats willing to use any means necessary to keep Blacks away from the ballot box. Paramilitary groups of armed white men known as “Red Shirts” patrolled polls, supposedly to ensure fairness—but in reality to intimidate Blacks.
Between 1865 and 1900, there were 262 disputed House elections. Most occurred in the states of the former Confederacy. The 1880 election that produced the 47th Congress of 1881–83 gave rise to 19 cases of alleged election fraud.
One egregious example was the race for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in South Carolina. In that state’s First Congressional District, a one-two punch of violence and fraud wrenched political power away from a Black majority that had voted strongly Republican during Reconstruction.
The First District election of 1880 pitted incumbent Democrat John S. Richardson against Republican Samuel J. Lee. Both had served in the Confederate Army, both were wounded in combat, both had political experience. But they had little else in common. Richardson, 52, was the son of a rich white rice planter and politician. Lee, 38, was born in slavery. During the Civil War, Lee accompanied his owner, General Samuel McGowan, into combat and was wounded twice. After the war, Lee read law and in 1871 was admitted to the South Carolina bar, gaining a reputation as an outstanding attorney. He served in 1872-74 as the first African-American speaker of the South Carolina House. In 1874, running as an Independent Republican, he narrowly lost a race for the U.S. House seat representing the First District. Subsequently, Lee became a judge of the probate court. In 1878, he became involved in the prosecution of a white man, prompting threats of violence. He moved to Washington, D.C., where he spent a year as a clerk at the U.S. Treasury Department.
Black candidate eyes house seat
In December 1879, Lee returned to Sumter County, outside Columbia, to challenge Richardson for the U.S. House seat representing the First District. Lee was counting on his district’s majority Black population to send him to Washington. Richardson and allies meant to overcome that racial skew. During this and other South Carolina campaigns during that year, gangs of Red Shirts roamed the countryside, urging whites to vote Democrat and terrorizing Blacks out of voting at all.
A key First District locale was Darlington, seat of Darlington County. The night of November 1, election eve, whites made a show of hauling two wagonloads of rifles into Darlington and carrying the weapons into a building next to the courthouse. That was the last anyone saw of the rifles, but by daylight on Election Day, most townspeople knew about them. That morning, a large number of African-American residents filled the market house, the usual polling place, to find that Democratic election managers had moved the polls to the courthouse, beside the supposed arsenal. To vote, a man had to climb either of two narrow staircases to the court building’s second floor. Jamming those stairs were knife- and gun-wielding Red Shirts who shoved, jostled, threatened, and otherwise deterred Blacks from voting. The Republicans stayed for hours, until the party’s Darlington County chairman urged that, given the impossibility of casting ballots, they should go home. South Carolina voters could vote at any precinct, but at the nearest alternate polling place, Florence, 10 miles away, a similarly ominous scenario unfolded, and across the district Blacks consistently experienced intimidation.
Earlier, overwhelmingly Black Darlington County had voted 80 percent Republican, but the 1880 vote went more than 90 percent Democratic. Out of 31,816 votes officially counted for the entire First District, Richardson led by 8,468.
To challenge House election results, an aggrieved candidate had to notify his opponent in writing explaining his complaints within 30 days of results being announced. The opponent got 30 days to respond. Both sides then had 60 days to build cases for review by the U.S. House Committee on Elections in Washington, D.C. Even if a petitioner’s challenge succeeded, he might not be seated until the congressional term had nearly ended; in the interim, the contested victor served.
lee contests election results
On December 15, 1880, Lee sent Richardson a notice specifying 20 points of challenge, including ballot box stuffing and multiple violent incidents. Richardson countered that all had been in order and denied that any intimidation had occurred. During the next two months, Lee called 594 witnesses for his attorneys to question and Richardson’s to cross-examine. Richardson called 151 rebuttal witnesses, handled similarly, as were Lee’s 52 rebuttal witnesses. Depositions ended in June 1881.
In Washington, the sworn, notarized documentation came to 825 typed pages detailing how every contested precinct’s election managers had been Democrats who prevented Republican poll workers—and sometimes federal elections supervisors—from doing their jobs. For example, Elections Supervisor I.W. Gadsden, assigned to monitor a polling place in Florence, testified that “town authorities or policemen” forcibly kept him out of the premises until after voting had begun. Managers refused Gadsden access to voting lists and would not reveal who or how many people had already voted. Another federal supervisor told of a manager forcing him at gunpoint out of his assigned polling place, declaring his federal authority to be of “no account.”
black voters stuck with pins
In at least five First District precincts, managers surreptitiously moved polling places as far as a mile and a half, without notice to federal supervisors or Black voters. In one of Darlington’s largest precincts, a large number of Republicans assembled at their usual polling place very early on Election Day, only to find the polls relocated, creating confusion and a lull in which Democratic election managers could have tampered with ballot boxes. Such events occurred across the district.
Violence and intimidation were common in heavily Black areas. In Sumter, for example, white Democrats kept would-be Black voters from casting ballots.
“Because the stairway leading to the poll was crowded with white men and boys,” an African-American man testified, “when I attempted to go up I would be squeezed and mashed so that I would be injured.” That witness said he gave up and went home. The federal supervisor assigned to that location testified that “occasionally they would let one [Black voter] in after sticking him with pins, abusing him, and cursing him, and telling him this was no damned Republican poll.” At Florence, 200 to 300 Black Republicans stood outside the polls attempting to vote from 6 a.m. until closing time; a crowd of whites, including policemen and town marshals, barred their access.
County officials arbitrarily rejected returns from several precincts in their entirety, usually on the spurious pretext that the courier delivering returns to a county board did not produce a letter authorizing him to deliver them. Many other rationales also were fabricated for rejections. Officials threw out the return from Midway because Democratic managers there had closed the polls before the stipulated time of 6 p.m.; officials voided another precinct’s vote because the managers “had adjourned for breakfast and dinner.” In Sumter Precinct 1, officials rejected the vote—1,499 for Lee, 9 for Richardson—without giving a reason. The rejected polls shared one characteristic: All involved votes tallying large Republican majorities.
For elections in Darlington and Chesterfield counties, managers provided no poll lists, official returns, or other paperwork, and afterward no one could be found to swear that the returns were true. Nonetheless, the state board counted those votes.
panel: results must be corrected
Following an intense, two-year investigation, along with inquiries into 18 other contested elections, the House Committee on Elections, chaired by Rep. William H. Calkins, R-Indiana, agreed that in South Carolina’s First District “fraud, violence, and intimidation were practiced and fraudulent returns were made, which must be corrected.” Committee members and staff agreed to adjust most First District results, add results thrown out on technical grounds, and adjust for fraudulent ballots. But they disagreed on how to handle the Darlington results. Eight members wanted to let the Darlington vote stand; seven wanted it dumped—a critical split, since counting the Darlington results would mean Richardson won; ditch Darlington, and Lee had a lead of 284 votes.
Witness J.A. Smith testified that obstruction and intimidation in Darlington kept him and 700 to 800 fellow Republicans from voting.
“I made three attempts to reach the ballot box—myself and others,” Smith said. “I found it impossible to do so without a collision with the Democrats and Red Shirts who had the steps packed from bottom to top.”
“I couldn’t get to the polls,” another man testified. “They were standing on the steps leading up to the box. I attempted to go up, and they said, ‘No radicals here; no radicals in here,’ and all caught arms together and shoved me back.”
In all, 240 witnesses swore that they had come to the Darlington polling station to vote for Lee, but had been intimidated from doing so. Several testified that 800 to 1,000 Republican men were prevented from voting at Darlington, where the results gave Richardson 1,271 votes and Lee 117. Previous elections at Darlington had tallied no more than 300 Democrat votes compared with about 1,400 Republican votes.
A minority of seven Republican members of the Elections Committee voted to reject the Darlington results. An eight-member majority—six Democrats and two Republicans—voted to accept the results. “The danger of bodily harm was not sufficient to warrant this course [that is, leaving without voting], and there was an entire lack of diligence on the part of these voters to maintain their right to vote,” the majority said. Since voters could use any precinct, the majority concluded, frustrated Darlington voters could have gone elsewhere—though at the polling place in Florence, 10 miles away, resistance kept 200 Republicans from voting.
The Elections Committee submitted its contradictory reports to the full House on February 24, 1883. Debate on the matter began March 3, the last day of the 47th Congress. Samuel Lee, along with John Richardson, got 15 minutes to make his case. Lee scorned the contention that Republican voters had not encountered threat enough to warrant leaving without voting.
“I would like my friend from Indiana, the chairman of the committee, to make a visit down to the Southern states at some of our elections and attempt in the guise of a colored man to go to one of these polls: he will find out whether the violence is sufficient or not to keep colored men away from the polls,” Lee said. “What did they do at Darlington? They crowded the steps… They were dressed in red shirts, armed with pistols, armed with knives, armed with guns, to prevent these colored men from going up the steps to vote… We took the testimony of two hundred and forty witnesses at the Darlington poll, who testified that it was impossible for the colored men to get up those steps and vote without being killed themselves… And who were on the steps? They were white Democrats dressed in red shirts, the meaning of which we in the South know very well. That uniform means in the South violence; it means to the colored man: stand back.”
Richardson, like Representative Jones, said simply that Black voters could have voted if they had waited until the white men left Election Day afternoon. Richardson denied allegations of violence and intimidation, arguing that those who gave up and did not vote were negligent in not traveling to an alternate polling place to cast their ballots.
house members block voting round
The same day, the House, voting 124-114, passed a minority resolution “that Darlington should be rejected, and Lee be declared elected by 284 votes.” This was the first time in that session of Congress that the House voted against a majority of the Elections Committee. But Democratic shenanigans, including multiple uses of the “disappearing quorum”—representatives refusing to vote when present—prevented the additional round of voting needed to seat Lee. Just after midnight the next day, the 47th Congress adjourned for the final time.
In 1882, Lee ran unsuccessfully for a new gerrymandered “black district,” District 7, campaigning as an Independent Republican against Republican Edmund Mackey. Lee went on to prosper as a lawyer in Charleston, where he acted as a mentor to young African-American attorneys. Richardson did not run for re-election in 1882.
Cases like Lee v. Richardson recurred in the post-Reconstruction South until the mid-1890s. By then, the states of the former Confederacy had passed laws imposing poll taxes, literacy exams, and other measures that effectively disenfranchised African-American citizens, precluding the need to steal elections. The fight to regain voting rights would resume full force in the 1950s and bring about enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.✯
This story was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of American History magazine.