Jan 27, 2001
The inauguration of George W. Bush on January 20 with Al Gore and Bill Clinton in attendance, offering congratulations put to rest whatever echoes might still be resonating about a "constitutional crisis." It's too soon to tell whether it also ended the talk about getting rid of the Electoral College, but its proponents haven't been making an issue of it lately.
Nonetheless, during the five weeks when the whole federal state apparatus was unable to decide who had won the presidency, the demands to get rid of the Electoral College shone a light on it and on the U.S. Constitution, in which it is enshrined.
If it had not been for the fiasco of the count in Florida, the year 2000 election would have been a very unremarkable one, marked mainly by shifts in positions, as both candidates responded to what their pollsters decided the "undecided voters" want to hear.
The turnout, 51%, was slightly higher this year than four years ago but that doesn't say much, given that in the 76 years since the election of 1924, there were only two presidential elections with a lower turnout than in 2000.
As has been the case for decades, the turn-out by working class and poor voters was significantly lower than by wealthier ones. According to the exit polls, 53% of the people who voted had family income greater than $50,000, although only 40% of families find themselves in that situation.
Despite the fact that a Republican replaced a Democrat in the White House, there was little real shift in the electorate. Clinton won in 1996 with 49% of the total vote, only slightly higher than what Bush and Gore both had this time.
The main difference this year was the steep decrease in votes for the right-wing Reform Party. In 1996, Perot had rolled up eight percent of the vote. Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate in 2000, won less than half of one percent of the votes. But rather than marking a conscious shift in the electorate, this decrease essentially reflects the fact that Buchanan never carried out a campaign. The party was split after he took the nomination, and most of its founders opposed his candidacy, tying up the party's funds in a court battle for most of the campaign. In Texas, the founders of the party threw their support to Nader's candidacy. According to election- night polls, almost two-thirds of Perot's votes went to the Republican candidate, which would be expected, since Perot had originally pulled more votes from the Republican than the Democratic candidate. But Gore also took a sizeable number of Perot's votes. And even Ralph Nader, nominated by the Green Party, picked up four times as many Perot votes as Buchanan got. As for Nader, who did campaign actively this year, his vote went up to 2.6% from one percent last time, when he made no campaign at all.
Without Florida, the year 2000 election would already have faded from memory.
What Florida showed, with the spotlight shining on it day after day, is how little importance is given to the votes which people cast, naively believing, as they have heard so many times, that every vote counts.
Obviously, thousands of votes were not counted. Over 19,000 votes were left uncounted in one county alone, with lesser amounts in other counties, depending in part on the kind of machines which were used. The punch card machines, which produced the famous hanging "chads," are particularly old, with a very high rate of mistakes and undercounting. Twelve years ago, the National Bureau of Standards recommended that such machines be junked. Nonetheless, they continue to be used in more than 500 counties across the nation, including some in Florida.
Little attention was paid to making sure that the ballot was fully comprehensible to everyone. Even Buchanan himself admitted that hundreds of Gore's votes had to have been mistakenly cast for him on the famous "butterfly ballot." Ballots in another Florida county carried instructions to mark every page BUT the presidential ballot took more than one page, and, if a voter followed instructions to the letter and marked on two pages, his or her ballot was invalid.
Many voters didn't get to cast their ballots. Their names were not on the lists sent to polling places, and there were few provisions made for correcting lists on the day itself.
As for inaccurate counting, how could it be otherwise? In Florida, as in most states, many of the people who manned the polling places and did the work of the count afterwards were temporary workers, many of them retirees, who put in long hours for a small stipend, did not know the electoral code, could not answer many of the questions that voters had and were exhausted by the time they started the count.
And then there were the boxes of uncounted ballots that somehow had been put into a closet and forgotten about!
The worst problems came in the poorest districts or counties, meaning that poorer people were more apt to be deprived of a vote than people in the wealthier areas. For example, a number of counties provided some laptops that allowed polling place officials to tap into the main computers to verify a missing registration: without exception, those laptops were provided in wealthier areas, with a small number of or no black voters.
Not nearly all the votes were counted not even in an election decided by 537 votes, which even determined the outcome of a national election.
Although the fiasco in Florida soon prompted an enterprising songwriter to record a new song, "Blame Florida," the problems were not restricted to Florida. The same problems existed elsewhere, and in many cases, in more extreme form. The vote just wasn't as close, so no one noticed.
According to Jim Mattox, a former Texas attorney general who investigated the voting machine industry, "Counting votes is like playing horseshoes. You get points for being close."
Close, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, means that nearly two million votes were probably not counted this year, many missed by the supposedly infallible machines. In 1996, 661,000 votes cast on punch card machines were not counted. The industry which makes election machines estimates that even the more modern machines account for at least 100,000 mistakes.
Undercounting of votes is one problem, outright cheating is another. Some of the machines can easily be rigged to create the count desired, rather than the count of how people actually voted. Across the country, not only do functionaries of the two parties stretch the legal limits of what's possible in getting absentee ballots filled out showing up at nursing homes, for example, ballots in hand, showing older patients suffering from dementia how to fill out the ballot, and incidentally, how to vote in a number of documented cases, they have been shown to go door to door, buying up signed absentee ballots. Election rolls in many localities are filled with the names of dead or fictitious persons. Alaska, for example, has almost 40,000 more names on its voting rolls than the total number of voting age people. In seven states Indiana, Arizona, Idaho, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin more than 20% of the names on the rolls are bogus. We live in a time when dead people vote, and live people vote as many as four, twelve or even twenty times! Huey Long, Louisiana's famous Depression-era governor, once quipped that he wanted to be buried in Louisiana, so he could go on voting after death. Huey would be pleased to be buried in any number of states today.
Apart from the fraud and after all fraud exists in every country, even if not always so blatant what is shocking is the lack of resources devoted to elections, the inaccuracy of the machines, the lack of what voters would need so they can easily vote. It's obvious that Wall Street doesn't function with old, worn-out machines and only approximate counting. What was brought to light in the Florida fiasco strikingly illustrates the profound contempt this system has for what the population thinks.
Bush won the presidency by a vote of five to four. After an election in which almost 104 million people voted, the decision was made by nine people sitting on the bench of the Supreme Court. They decided, in the best Catch-22 fashion, that there was not enough time to count all the ballots and still meet the deadlines set out in the Constitution. Of course not! The Court's earlier ruling had suspended the count when there would have been time enough to complete it, leaving it suspended up until the day when there no longer was enough time.
The men and women who made this decision are ostensibly "impartial" and guided only by what's written in Constitution yet (surprise! surprise!), they voted along partisan lines. With one exception, all the justices who had been appointed by a Republican president voted in favor of Bush, the Republican candidate; all of those appointed by a Democrat voted in favor of Gore.
No different in Florida, where the state Supreme Court under Democrat control voted in favor of Gore; where the Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, a Republican and the co-chair of Bush's Florida campaign, favored Bush; where the Attorney General, Robert Butterworth, a Democrat, and the chair of Gore's Florida campaign, favored Gore; and where the state legislature decided it would submit a second slate of electors from Florida committed to Bush, in the event the recount gave Florida to Gore.
It had got to the point that journalists were talking about a permanent paralysis and while that was a bit exaggerated, people certainly were finding tons of jokes to laugh at, mocking both the political situation and the two candidates.
Robert Pastor, from Emory University in Atlanta, has often monitored elections in other countries, where the election procedures are considered suspect. Asked by the New York Times to compare what he had seen elsewhere with what had transpired in Florida, Pastor said that he had never seen a situation as blatant, with both Democrats and Republicans using their elected positions to influence the counting of the ballots. He added, "The United States is at the most primitive level.... I can't think of a situation like this one in a developing country."
It may have been tongue in cheek, and with a good deal of glee, when Cuban officials offered to send neutral observers to Florida to monitor the accuracy of the electoral count. But this was certainly the final blow for an American state apparatus used to parading around the world as the arbiter of other people's problems!
The members of the Supreme Court may have had partisan interests, but it seems likely that this body was even more concerned, once things got to this point, with resolving the situation in a way to bring back "normalcy" to the situation. No matter who won, what was important was that he be given some "authority," the very thing which had been undercut by the ludicrousness of the situation and the partisan wrangling.
The most striking thing about this election even more than the partisanship and the slipshod disregard of votes and voters, when there wasn't outright fraud is the fact that Gore won the popular vote while Bush won the presidency.
This somewhat shocking result highlighted the fact that the Constitution does not allow for direct election; the Electoral College, and not the voters, chooses the president. Two factors account for the fact that a vote in the Electoral College may be different than the popular vote.
First, Electoral College votes are allotted to each state on a basis which is not proportional to the number of people in the state. Each state is given Electoral College votes adding up to the total number of seats a state has in the House of Representatives plus its two Senate seats. While the House of Representatives districts are set up to equalize the number of people living in each district, the addition of the two Senate seats means that the total number of Electoral College votes is not proportional to the population.
Second, a state's votes are translated into Electoral College votes on a winner-take-all basis. A very close vote in a state does not mean that the state's Electoral College votes are divided almost evenly, with the winner getting just slightly more. In Florida, for example, Bush got 2,912,790 votes, and Gore got 2,912,253. But Bush got all 25 of the state's Electoral College votes.
These two factors mean not only that the loser of the popular vote can win the Electoral College vote and, thus, the presidency. It also means that if you live in a big state, your vote counts less than if you live in a small state. Each vote cast by California in the Electoral College represented 658,000 people, while each Electoral College vote cast by Wyoming represented only 175,000 people. If you live in Wyoming your vote counts almost four times as much than if you live in California.
During the five weeks when the next occupant of the White House was still in question, several prominent Democrats, among them Hillary Clinton, raised the question of whether the Constitution should be modified to eliminate the Electoral College. It may have happened three times before that the man who won more popular votes lost the presidency, but, they pointed out, this was the first time it happened since the end of the 19th century. According to people who would like to junk it, the Electoral College is an anachronism; it might have been appropriate in an earlier time when so many people were unable to read, and when modern means of communication and travel were nonexistent. But not today in the modern world.
In fact, the Electoral College was not a response to problems of distance, communication or illiteracy. The Electoral College, like the Constitution in which it is enshrined, was the means by which the two parts of the ruling class of 1787 Southern slaveholder and Northern merchant sought to solidify their power. In the very first years after the revolution, their competing interests made them hold back from creating a centralized power. Each fearing that the other might use the central power to become dominant, both parts were content at the beginning to leave power in the hands of the various states.
But events soon brought them to understand the need for a central power. In the years after the end of the revolution, the small farmers, who had been the main troops of the American revolution, discovered that they were still being taxed into poverty. The only thing that had changed was the nationality of the tax collector: the farmers were now being impoverished by American taxes, instead of British ones. Faced with taxes they could not pay and troops sent out to take their land away, the farmers organized their own militias, marched on government offices and forced local and even some state officials to pass legislation favoring them. A number of state legislatures had passed legislation, particularly concerning money and taxes, that harmed the interests of both slaveholder and merchant. But what finally forced the issue were the farmers' rebellions.
In the summer of 1786, a vast movement had sprung up among the farmers of western Massachusetts. Now known as Shays' Rebellion, this movement began to organize its own militias to prevent the expropriation of the land of the small farmers, and to demand that the landless farm laborers be given land. When some of the farmers who led these events were threatened with court proceedings, Daniel Shays and others led an immense crowd which descended on the courthouses to prevent the trials. Ultimately Shays' troops were put down and a number executed, but not before important parts of the Massachusetts state militia went over to the insurgents. The wealthy, who had taken over the reins of government from the British, were well frightened by the difficulty they had in putting down this insurrection.
Moreover, similar developments appeared in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, with armed farmers marching on state legislatures. In all three of these states, farmers had begun to set up conventions to organize their own government.
General Henry Knox, a Revolutionary War general charged with putting down the Massachusetts farmers' rebellion, afterwards writing to George Washington, described what the Massachusetts farmers wanted: "Their creed is: That the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all. And he that attempts opposition to this creed is an enemy to equity and justice and ought to be swept from off the face of the earth.'" He also pointed out the dangers that these American "levelers" posed for the new American ruling classes, who had not yet really established a strong state apparatus: "The people who are the insurgents have never paid any, or but very little taxes. But they see the weakness of the government; they feel at once their own poverty, compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter, in order to remedy the former."
Alexander Hamilton, future secretary of the treasury, and one of the main architects of the Constitution, repeatedly made clear in his writings and speeches that the aim of the new Constitution was to strengthen the government in order to protect the privileges of the wealthy and propertied minority from the demands of the majority. He wrote, in The Federalist: "All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born, the other the mass of the people.... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share of the government."
James Madison, slave owner and future president, explained: "In all civilized countries the people fall into different classes having a real or supposed difference of interests. There will be creditors and debtors; farmers, merchants and manufacturers. There will be particularly the distinction between the rich and the poor.... The proper role of government is to protect against leveling tendencies that might lead to an agrarian law" in other words, rule by the majority, which in that period were the small farmers who were forcing local governments to accede to their demands and who were even in some places attempting to set up their own governments.
Madison also envisioned a future, with the growth of manufacturing, when "a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of property." And he raised the specter that they might "combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case, the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands..." Madison, in discussing the possibilities of insurrection elsewhere, makes an indirect comment which shows that he was all too aware, slaveholder that he was, that slavery had created its own gravedigger: "I take no notice of an unhappy species of population abounding in some of the states who during the calm of regular government are sunk below the level of men; but who, in the tempestuous scenes of civil violence, may emerge into human character and give a superiority of strength to any party with which they may associate themselves."
It was to buttress against this possibility that several specific protections of slavery were written into the constitution, the most important of which was the prohibition of non-slaveholding states to pass laws emancipating slaves who escaped into their territory.
The revolution, mobilizing the small farmers, may have been made under the slogan "to establish life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But the framers of the Constitution, looking now to give a framework to their new power, made it explicit that the happiness being pursued was "property"; that the liberty they envisioned was for the biggest property holders slaveholders, merchants and manufacturers to go on pursuing still more property.
John Jay, the first chief justice of the new supreme court, expressed the aim of those who met in 1787 in the most blunt fashion: "The people who own the country ought to govern it."
And what was important, first of all, for the "people who own the country," was to have the means to "repress domestic faction and insurrection," as Hamilton put it. He added, "The tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely speculative."
The means which Hamilton and Madison found to "repress domestic faction and insurrection" was a central power with the right to raise an army, establish a centrally predominant bank and have the control over the money supply. The need for these things were what led the two ruling classes to set aside their differences and create this single power.
But there were other important questions, the most important of which was how this new government would be structured and chosen.
The Electoral College, like the Constitution which established the framework of the government, was aimed at putting up barriers to the pressures that the farmers were bringing on their own state legislatures and even more on local officials. Jeremy Belknap, arguing for the majority which wanted to establish a strong, centralized government, declared: "Let it stand as a principle that government originates from the people; but let the people be taught that they are not able to govern themselves."
Madison averred, "Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society." And, discussing the dangers posed by factions coming out of "the various and unequal distribution of property," he proposed to set up a single power of the existing 13 states, rather than the 13 separate state powers loosely confederated as then existed. "An extensive republic," according to Madison, would make it "more difficult for all who feel it [a common motive] to discover their strength and to act in unison with each other.... The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States." Later he made the point even more clearly: "Divide in order to rule, this corrupt axiom, appropriate to tyranny, is, under certain conditions, the only policy which will permit a Republic to be administered justly."
The new single power was federated, undoubtedly as an answer to the problem of how to reconcile the different and even competing sectional economic interests. But it was nonetheless centralized; the Constitution gave the new federal government the means, through its executive and judicial powers, to override much of what might develop in one state or area to protect the interests of the nationally dominant classes.
Within the central apparatus, a similar scheme was worked out: the famous "separation of powers," allowing the Senate, which was not directly elected until 1913, to override or block what the House of Representatives, the only part of the government originally to be directly elected, might do. The presidency was given the right, through the veto power, to block what a congress might do. And a supreme court, appointed by earlier presidents, could block what a congress and a president together might decide to do. In addition, the selection of senators was staggered over a six year period, and the justices of the Supreme Court had lifetime appointments, which appointments were made at different times, by different presidents. Finally, the Electoral College gave the means to override any decision the voters (or even the state legislatures which first chose the electors) made.
The framers of the Constitution were faced with growing demands for the franchise from those who had taken part in the first American Revolution. What they created was a framework which effectively held out the possibility of the franchise (simply by not defining it), while at the same time it created a kind of maze which the "turbulent and changing people" would have to go through before they could express their wishes through elections. Either Madison or Hamilton, in Federalist Paper #63, argued that a "well constructed Senate is sometimes necessary as a defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions."
To quote Madison's famous words: "In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government."
Whatever disagreements later developed between Madison, representative of the Southern slaveholders, and Hamilton, representative of the Northern bankers, merchants and manufacturers, they found enough common ground to develop a structure which could defend the joint interests of the two ruling classes of their day.
Even if the differences later could be settled only through force of arms, the differences which existed in 1787 between slaveholders and merchants could still be bridged in the first years after the revolution. The phrase "three-fifths of all other persons" not only designated the way the slaves would be counted for purposes of taxation and for the number of representatives the Southern states would get, it also indicated the acceptance of slavery by a Northern merchant class not yet strong enough to impose itself as the one master in the American house. With the development of manufacturing, the compromise was to become a fetter on the further development of capitalism. And when that time came, the fetter would be broken by the same means by which the country had been established in the first place: popular revolution. The second time around, it was called the Civil War and Reconstruction. This Second American Revolution, although it wrought some significant changes to the document written in 1787 and ratified in 1789, did not require the Constitution to be junked, nor did later events. The Constitution has stood the test of time, well able, with some few modifications, to go on defending the interests of the ruling class which established itself as the one single ruling class and which continues to dominate American society today, the capitalist class.
As for the famous Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution they were an afterthought, hurriedly cobbled together when it appeared the Constitution might not be ratified and held out as an inducement to recalcitrant states to ratify. Whether or not the population took these ten amendments seriously, it's clear that the "founding fathers" did not. The First Amendment, passed by the new Congress in 1791, provided among other things that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Yet only seven years later, Congress, filled with many of these same "founding fathers," passed a law doing just that: the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act made it a crime to say or write anything publicly criticizing Congress or the president in a way which might "excite popular anger" against them. The right of Congress to pass this act abridging freedom of speech and the press was upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court and spoke volumes about the way all ten of these "rights" would be interpreted.
The Constitution may have started with those famous words, but the vast majority of "we the people" did not have the right to vote, neither in practice nor in the new Constitution itself. The framers, unwilling to introduce an issue which might focus opposition to the new Constitution, left the question of who has the suffrage up to the individual states to decide. What the states decided was that women, half the adult population, should not vote; nor could the slaves, the majority of the population in the heart of the South; nor could anyone belonging to "one of the Savage tribes"; nor, in most cases, could anyone without a certain amount of property. Most small farmers who owned their land could meet the property requirement, but many farmers didn't own their land, and of those who did, some could not meet the tax-paying requirements, which took various forms in various states, or even localities. Estimates are that less than 10% of the total adult population were able to vote before 1800.
During this early period, the movements of farmers and of mechanics and other workmen in the cities were both pushing for the vote. Suffrage was extended in bits and pieces, with the situation being different from state to state and locality to locality. In a few places, women with property were able to vote. In some places, free black people were given the vote. In cities, the push among mechanics and other propertyless workers gained them the right to vote on certain questions.
But the largest part of the population continued to be denied the vote. The framers of the Constitution may have created a bulwark against the "turbulent" people, but the legislatures of most states weren't ready to test it by extending the suffrage.
Of course, there had always been a few more radical political figures who argued to extend the suffrage on philosophical grounds. Then there was Benjamin Franklin's argument opposing property qualifications which took on a kind of classic status over the years: "Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?"
The first large break in the situation came with the development of working class organizations parties, unions and co-operatives in the Northeast. One of their first demands was always the right to vote.
The Northeastern capitalists could find no self-interest in extending the suffrage: they maintained the traditional stand established by the "founding fathers." Chancellor Kent of the New York state legislature, arguing for the need to keep a property requirement for voting, called up the specter of "the motley assemblage of paupers, emigrants, journeymen manufacturers [i.e. manual laborers], and those undefinable classes of inhabitants which a state and city like ours is calculated to invite. This is not a fancied alarm. Universal suffrage jeopardizes property, and puts it into the power of the poor and the profligate to control the affluent."
On the other hand, the Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson, discovered it had an interest in answering some of these demands. The Democrats, descendants of Jefferson's loosely organized Republican Party, represented the interests of the Southern slaveholders, opposing first the Federalists, then the Whigs, the parties of the emerging Northeastern capitalist class. The Democrats sought to extend their party into the North by voting for laws which gave "free labor" certain protections. Since the slaveholders' labor force was not free, these laws cost them little.
Some Democrats had, from the time of Jefferson, argued philosophically against restricting the suffrage, at least for white males. But in the period after 1820, the Democratic Party, divining a partisan advantage in the situation, pushed to extend the suffrage to all free white males, demanding an end to property requirements and poll taxes for voting. The Democrats used the most demagogic language in doing so. Virginian George Fitzhugh, for example, wrote: "We are all, North and South, engaged in the White Slave Trade, and he who succeeds best, is esteemed most respectable. It is far more cruel than the Black Slave Trade, because it exacts more of its slaves, and neither protects nor governs them.... You, with the command over labor which your capital gives you, are a slave owner a master without the obligations of a master. They who work for you, who create your income, are slaves, without the rights of slaves. Slaves without a master."
Did they have another interest in the matter? John Randolph, the famous Senator from Virginia, answered in plain words: "Northern gentlemen think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves."
Thus was born the policy of Southern slaveholders who sought, through the Democratic Party, to line up the Northern workers behind them. In the period leading up to the Civil War, it bore fruit for the Southern planters, since demands for political rights by workers created certain problems for the Northern capitalists. During the war itself, the Democratic Party undoubtedly played a role in the draft riots that shook some cities of the Northeast when conscription was first imposed particularly in focusing the anger of Northern workers against the slaves, with the resultant lynching of a number of free black people in the streets of New York City.
Andrew Jackson was the first in a long line of Democrats which stretches up to this day to pretend to speak for "the humble members of society the farmer, mechanics and laborers." Demagogically presenting himself as the representative of the "common man" did not prevent Jackson from acting as a strikebreaker (he sent troops to crush a strike on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal); nor from being the author of the "Indian Removal Bill," which pushed Creeks and Cherokees from their land (opening up vast new holdings for slavery). Nor did it prevent him from ordering the execution of the common soldiers under his command who discovered that he was leading them into another war whose rewards were going to the rich. But his demagogic appeals throwing the White House open to the "common people" on his inauguration day, for example gained the Democrats popular support. In opening the door to the White House, Jackson also invited into the Democratic Party the workers' organizations of his day, diverting their struggles away from what the workers needed into support for what the ruling class needed. Some of them joined the first to do so was a workers party in New York state. While, in this first instance, it was the slaveowners who were served, the bourgeoisie in later periods made use of the Democratic Party in exactly the same way: absorbing the populist movement at the end of the 19th century via the William Jennings Bryan campaigns; the trade unions during the workers movement of the 1930s via Roosevelt; or the black movement of the 1960s, via Kennedy and Johnson, with equally tragic consequences each time for the laboring people.
For 62 years after 1803, there were no further changes to the Constitution. But the victory of the North in the Civil War and its need to "Reconstruct" the South in order to ensure that victory led to the most significant changes ever wrought in the Constitution. Whereas the Constitution of 1789 endorsed slavery, the Constitution amended three times during the Civil War and Reconstruction forbid it; whereas 1789 denied citizenship to slaves (with the courts ruling that this also meant former slaves), the Reconstructed Constitution extended them all the rights of citizenship; and whereas 1789 had been silent on who had the right to vote, this one declared that the right to vote could not be abridged due to "race, color or previous condition of servitude."
The Reconstructed Constitution not only announced the victory of industrial capitalism, it also acknowledged that in order to gain the victory, Northern capitalism had had to put itself forward as the defender of the interests of the former slave class. This all required the development of the Republican Party on a radical basis which is not to say that all Republicans were radicals on these matters. In fact, the Republican Party was the successor to the Whigs as the direct spokesman for Northeastern capital. But if the Republicans had not responded in radical fashion to the challenge that the South laid down, if they had not been ready to do what was necessary to defeat the slaveowners, there would have been no Northern victory. The Republican Party mobilized the small farmers of the North who felt their holdings threatened by the extension of slavery, and eventually the slaves themselves. In short order, the Republican Party carried out emancipation; the enlistment of the slaves in the Northern armies; and, finally, the Reconstruction Acts, which opened up not only suffrage, but the Southern state governments to participation by the most downtrodden of the South's people, the ex-slaves and the poor whites. Those governments quickly threw out restrictions to suffrage (for males, in any case, since, except in a few cases, they did not even raise the question of women voting). They also began to pass a series of laws in which the poor recognized their interests: setting up the first real public schools in the nation, stopping absentee ownership of land farmed by sharecroppers, ending convict labor, etc.
Even though the Republican Party soon began to pull back from the most radical implications of the policies it itself had led, what happened during those few short years allowed the Republican Party (the party of the Northern capitalists) to earn the support of the ex-slaves and poor whites in the South. For the black population, this allegiance was not broken until the time of the Great Depression. Thus the finishing touches were put on the gulf which divided the laboring population, with white workers tied to the Democrats; and former slaves, small farmers and some poor whites tied to the Republicans; with both parties representing the interests of the ruling class, even if slightly different parts of that ruling class.
The Fifteenth Amendment, which forbids the vote to be denied for reasons of "race, color or previous conditions of servitude," was passed in 1869 and ratified in 1870. The debate over this amendment gives a picture of the time very well. In the first months of 1869, Henry Wilson, a Massachusetts senator, shoemaker by trade and long-time foe of slavery, had proposed an amendment which would have prevented states from denying the vote or the right to hold office to anyone because of their "race, color, nativity, property, education or creed." Wilson's version, which touched the situation of Northern workers as well as the ex-slaves, went way beyond what was necessary to "reconstruct the South." A congress still concerned with the protection of property was not about to make such a sweeping extension of suffrage. Once Reconstruction of the federal system was accomplished sufficiently to allow capitalist interests to predominate, the Republicans were no longer concerned with voting rights in the South either.
In a deal cut in the beginning of 1877, the Republican Party agreed to pull out the Northern troops, opening the way for the Democratic Party, with the Ku Klux Klan as its military arm, to move back into the South, throwing out the Reconstruction governments and reversing much of the social legislation these governments had passed legislation which capital did not want to see emulated in the North. In exchange, the Democrats agreed to give the presidential election of 1876, which still had not been decided, to the Republican Hayes. The North had already, in fact, begun to pull its army out of the South, leaving the Reconstruction governments more open to attack from the growing Ku Klux Klan. But 1877 marked the real end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the move to "redeem" the South, as the Democrats genteelly called it. The South, however, was not redeemed politely, but with violence and terrorism.
Formally, the right to vote, just as other rights, was not abridged according to race or color this had been forbidden by the 14th and 15th Amendments. Rights were abridged according to class. Once again, property requirements and poll taxes gained currency in the South. Blacks were not allowed to vote because they didn't own enough property or hadn't paid the poll taxes. While these laws prevented blacks from voting, they also prevented many poor whites from doing so too. In Mississippi, for example, where more than 70% of all adult males, black and white, had voted in the 1870s, by 1890, only 50% were voting, and by the early 20th century, the rate had plunged to 15%, where it stayed for decades. After a while, it's true, these laws were enforced in a racially discriminatory fashion: whites might not be asked for proof of poll taxes paid, while blacks might be prevented from paying them because tax offices were always closed when they tried. And there was always the threat of violence against anyone who tried to pay the poll tax. Nonetheless, there was always a social component to these laws that worked against the laboring white population, even if the largest part of that white population found itself lining up behind Southern capital inside the Democratic Party.
These measures were aimed, to use the quaint term employed by the Supreme Court of Alabama in one case, "to preserve the purity of the ballot box."
For the Northern bourgeoisie, the deal had been cut just in time. The workers, whose anger had been simmering through several long years of a severe depression, had already begun, as early as 1876, to carry out some bitter strikes. But by 1877, the situation had evolved to the point that the strikes, originating in a few railroad cities, quickly spread, including into states on the edge of the South. For months, the major cities where railroads were centered were overwhelmed with the struggles going on in the streets. The readiness of the working class to stand up to troops and even to frighten the troops off in many cases gave an insurrectionary aspect to these strikes. Eventually, the strikes were put down, with an enormous mobilization of the organized violence of the state as well as private armies put together by the capitalists. But the Northern bourgeoisie had once again been seriously frightened.
By the end of the year, the strike was over, but what had happened was used to justify the extension and fortification of the armed forces it was at this point that armories were constructed in the center of major cities. But there was a renewal of the call to restrict suffrage in the North.
In 1878, Francis Parkman, the most respected historian of his time, decried the fast growing factory cities of New England where "thousands and tens of thousands of restless workmen, foreigners for the most part, to whom liberty means license and politics means plunder, to whom the public good is nothing and their own most trivial interests everything, who love the country for what they can get out of it, and whose ears are open to the prompting of every rascally agitator ... universal suffrage becomes a questionable blessing."
This was only the opening shot in a movement to turn back the clock. By the turn of the century, a former diplomat, William Scruggs, could write, in The Nation, "In its last analysis, universal suffrage is but another name for a licensed mobocracy; and a licensed mobocracy is nothing less than organized anarchy,' pure and simple."
Starting in the early 1880s, Republicans in the North began to push through the same kind of laws which openly discriminated according to class and income that the Democrats were passing in the South: property qualifications and poll taxes were re-instituted or re-implemented. "Vagrants" and paupers were denied the right to vote. In 1889, the Journal of United Labor, published by the Knights of Labor, thus editorialized: "The registration and poll-tax law of Massachusetts is essentially unjust and un-American. It virtually debases the right of suffrage to a part of the tax-collecting machinery, and instead of making it really, as it is in theory, the birthright of every American citizen renders it a privilege to be secured by a money-payment."
In both North and South, there was a large increase in the types of crime for which people, once convicted, could permanently lose the right to vote not only when they were in prison but after they had finished serving their sentence, having paid as the saying goes their debt to society.
But the North, in this same period, also began to introduce other mechanisms for reducing participation in the electorate, particularly in those cases where politicians deemed it inadvisable to have a head-on confrontation with people who had the franchise. A multitude of changes were now introduced in local and state voting laws and constitutions: literacy tests; the single unified ballot, which served as a kind of unofficial literacy test (as we saw in Florida with the famous butterfly ballot); reduction of the hours of voting to daylight hours; extended residency requirements, which eliminated all those workers who were forced to move in search of work or because of the job they had.
The combination of these laws, aimed as they were against the conditions of life of the working class, prevented a great many workers from voting. Interestingly enough, the very same session of New York state's legislature that passed the literacy requirements also refused to let five legally elected Socialists take their seat in the legislature.
Registration which really gained ground starting in the 1880s, although some Northern states had started earlier was by far the most important restriction on the right to vote, eliminating tens and hundreds of thousands of working people from voting lists. In New Jersey, for example, a prospective voter had to register within a narrow window of only four days work days, of course, on work time. The voter had to re-register if he moved or if he didn't vote in one election. He had to present papers identifying himself, give information about where he worked and the names of his parents, spouse and landlord. He also had to write a description of the house in which he lived. Chicago was even worse. A voter there had two days in which he could register, both Tuesdays, thus making it harder still for him to miss work on election Tuesday; if he was challenged, he had to file multiple affidavits; the police were sent into the houses of all people who registered to verify residence and who knows what else. After this investigation, the prospective voter might be ordered back again. Each four years, he had to go through the same thing again. In other places, where there were a lot of immigrant workers, they were required to show the original of their citizenship papers on the day they voted; New York City, with its sizeable Jewish working class population, held registration on the Jewish sabbath and on Yom Kippur. In Pittsburgh, where the number of men registered to vote dropped from 95,580 to 45,819 in less than ten years' time, the minute books of the registration commission recorded the commission's verdict in 1907: "the figures speak for themselves as to the good results obtained under the operation of the Personal Registration Act."
Despite claims that registration was being instituted in order to get rid of electoral fraud, no study has ever shown that more fraud was committed by workers than by anyone else. These laws were aimed essentially not against fraud but against the "restless workmen" who might combine their votes to create a "mobocracy" to use the language of the "reformers" who sought to restrict once again who could belong to "we the people" and who could not.
With the growing numbers of immigrants, who came flooding into the new factories in the 1880s and '90s, older laws which had allowed non-citizen immigrants to vote, especially in the Midwest, were overthrown. Immigrants without citizenship were now systematically denied the franchise. And immigrants who finally did gain citizenship had to face further hurdles before they could vote, including waiting periods after gaining citizenship.
From 1879 until 1920, the direction was further and further restriction of the electorate in both North and South. What finally broke through this was the movement of women demanding the suffrage. This movement had started before the Civil War, continuing for the better part of a century until women finally gained the vote. When women were not included in the Reconstruction period amendments, this was a big blow, especially because women had played a very large role in the fight against slavery. But the women's movement continued to get chip away in some localities and states, gaining suffrage for some women and for some types of elections, until the close victory in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment did not lead to a big expansion in fact of those who actually voted in part because many women, still hemmed in by social conventions, did not vote. But a very big factor was that all those women who were part of the working class confronted, and sometimes more severely, the same problems as their male counterparts in trying to register, pass literacy tests, etc. And the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment didn't really challenge those class-based restrictions, even though a number of feminists denounced them.
Most of the restrictive laws passed in the days of "Redemption" stayed on the books until the movements of the 1960s began to challenge the restrictions both official and unofficial which prevented voting in both the North and the South. The poll tax was finally done away with by a constitutional amendment ratified in 1964. Other restrictions, were done away with one by one, state by state, as the movement challenged them.
Today the electorate is closer than its ever been to "universal suffrage," something which had been demanded already in 1789. But there are still two big exceptions to its universality. And interestingly enough, the categories of people denied the vote today did one have it. First, there are the people prevented from voting because they were convicted of a crime. For more than a century, when these restrictions were widely introduced, little challenge has been made to the idea that imprisonment justifies exclusion from the polls. In this last election, four million people were prevented from voting because of these laws, with Florida and Texas leading the pack in the number of people so excluded. The vast majority of those people have served their time and are once again "free" men and women. Given the racially discriminatory nature of the justice system running from who is more apt to be arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced for committing the same crime not to mention the racially discriminatory aspect of poverty in this society, this restriction has a highly racist aspect to it. But fundamentally, this exclusion is based on class. It is the poor who overwhelmingly inhabit the prisons.
The other exception is the immigrant population. In 1990, the number of immigrants who were not citizens was 60%, compared to just over 20% in 1950. Part of this change reflects a new increase in the number of immigrants, but part reflects the increasing difficulty in gaining citizenship. And no state has ever proposed to go back to the period in the 1800s when immigrants, simply by declaring their intention to become citizens, were allowed to vote.
The periods when the suffrage was extended were periods of social movements: the revolutionary period, the period when the working class first formed its own organizations, the Civil War and Reconstruction period, the period when women went into the streets to demand suffrage, and the period of the black people's struggle.
Suffrage, even as limited as it was, was not given to the popular classes to the black population or to women. It was a gain made by movements which had the force in some periods to really demand it. At the same time, suffrage was almost always presented as the gift made by one of the two bourgeois parties, and it was used to tie the popular classes to these two parties of the ruling class.
If the bourgeoisie has been ready, in the recent period, to finally make suffrage widespread, this was also because the edifice which was established by the Constitution has served so well to prevent the popular will from being expressed. What happened in Florida shows and this in a situation where nothing was at stake other than the partisan interests of the two parties the means which still exist to short-circuit the ballot, not to speak of the popular will.
Nothing was written into the Constitution about political parties. Nothing required the evolution of what we have come to accept as ordinary, that is the existence of only two parties, both of which represent the ruling class, differing mainly in the language they speak and the popular base they try to appeal to. But the framework set up in 1787 with its winner-take-all arrangements, the many layers of representation and the "separation of powers" all pushed in the direction of this monolithic two-party state we have today.
The final brick in the edifice of the two-party system was laid down by the so-called "progressive" movement starting in the early years of the 20th century. The Socialist Party, at the end of the 19th century, had begun to demonstrate that even with all the restrictions, it was possible for a workers' party (more exactly, a populist party in which both workers and farmers found themselves) could use the franchise to extend its influence. The fact that the SP could run in small city or county districts, many of which had an overwhelmingly popular constituency, allowed the SP to gain seats in city councils, state legislatures and even a few congressional districts. Through those campaigns, the SP laid the groundwork for Debs presidential campaigns, the most famous one the campaign of 1920, when he was in prison for his speeches against World War I.. Campaigning on the slogan, "From Atlanta Prison to the White House," his poster emblazoned with a picture of him in his convict's uniform, he rolled up more than 900,000 votes. In 1912, he had rolled up a similar number of votes, 6% of the vote at that point and this in a period when restrictions prevented a large part of the laboring population from voting.
The "progressives," in different cities at different times, once again under the banner of getting rid of electoral fraud, replaced smaller neighborhood districts with citywide or countywide districts, thus merging the votes of workers into those of other classes. This reinforced the tendency toward this two- party monolith, a system still fastened on us today.
The fact that a party cannot gain any representation until it arrives at a majority has served to militate against the development of a party which could represent the popular masses, whether small farmers or workers.
There have been other third party movements since the SP usually produced by a particular situation which came, but also passed away abruptly. All of them confronted the same question, the one which Debs had to answer, even at the time of the SP's greatest influence: "if you can't win, isn't it more efficient for you to throw your support to someone who can?"
Debs answered: "I would rather vote for what I want and not get it, than vote for what I don't want and get it."
The continuing decline in voter turnout speaks volumes about what it means for the working class not to have its own party today. Whatever other reasons are involved, this low turn-out almost certainly shows that some parts of the working class don't want to, as Debs did not want to, vote for what they don't want and get it.
The Constitution, along with all the institutions it established which led to this monolithic two-party system, serves the ruling class. And it serves it just as well today, as it did in 1789, or in 1865 or in 1877. From the bourgeoisie's standpoint, there is nothing anachronistic about it. It continues to protect the bourgeoisie's property and its wealth against the working class. In the most modern fashion, it continues to help the bosses increase their wealth at the expense of the majority of the population.
Whoever the working class has confronted as president, coming from whichever part of this two-headed party, it has always needed to impose its own interests through its own means. That's as true today as it's ever been. The workers need their own party, clearly standing on the field of their own class interests. The workers need their own independent voice, not one which justifies the institutions of an exploitative system, as the Democrats and Republicans do.
Certainly, the working class has a great many obstacles to get past if it is to construct its own political party on the level of the whole country, given all the barriers thrown up to prevent such a development. It's hard to imagine this party rising other than through big political struggles which would in the events unify the working class politically the working class which the bourgeoisie and its institutions do everything they can to break up into small competing sections.
No one can say, in advance, exactly how the workers' party will grow up. All we can say is that it is necessary just as it's necessary to stop voting for "what we don't want."