By Andy O’Brien
As long ago as the 1800s, and continuing into the present time, non-white voters have played an influential role in U.S. elections. And for as long as African Americans have had the right to vote, many white politicians and their business and media allies have accused them of voter fraud, despite a lack of evidence.
In 2020, Black voters likely tipped the balance in favor of President Joe Biden in several swing states, with 91% of African Americans supporting the Democratic candidate. Meanwhile, according to the Pew Research Center, former President Donald Trump, a member of the Republican party, won the national white vote by 15 points in 2016 and by 12 points in 2020. Even in the 2020 midterms, which the Democrats won, Republicans led Democrats by 6 points among white voters.
Yet Republican politicians as long ago as the 19th century have made false claims of voter fraud against Black voters. They have sought to disenfranchise Black voters by gerrymandering congressional districts to dilute the power of Black voters, and they passed laws designed to suppress the Black vote, such as limiting absentee and early voting, imposing stricter voter ID requirements, and restricting voter registration. And Trump and his supporters attempted to overturn election results in Democratic cities with large Black populations including Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, while falsely accusing election officials of fraud in corruption.
All of this is nothing new. In the late 1820s, Black businessman Reuben Ruby of Portland joined the National Republican Party; he also joined The Whigs, its successor, in 1834. Both of these parties supported a strong central government and a national bank. In those days, most Black voters opposed the Democratic Party, which was pro-slavery and opposed to Black suffrage at that time.
In the early 1830s, there were just a few hundred African American voters in Portland. However, in the city of only about 13,000 people, they exerted considerable influence in statewide politics – in the election of 1832, the National Republicans squeaked to a victory in the city election by just 21 votes.
The Democratic Washington Globe reacted with fury, making the unsubstantiated claim that the Portland National Republicans had bribed Black voters with dinner and liquor “at the grog shop.” The Democratic-leaning Weekly Argus accused the National Republicans of “threatenings, misrepresentation, and even revolting forgeries.” The local National Republicans vigorously denied that there was any impropriety in the election, noting that in Maine “the vote of a colored man is as good as that of a white man.”
The Argus went on to allege that the Whigs had promised to support the Abyssinian church and give Black voters positions in state government in return for their vote. And Black Whigs were, in fact, awarded patronage positions for their party loyalty and ability to marshal votes – as was the custom of both parties in those days. After the election of 1832, Reuben Ruby landed his first Portland city appointment as one of 16 tithing men who enforced laws barring travel and work on the Sabbath. Abyssinian church member Titus Skillings – a church sexton and owner of a local smoke house – also served in various patronage positions in the 1820s and 1830s, including as a tithing man and one of the city’s measurers of corn and other grain.
The Argus made the unsubstantiated claim that many of the Black residents who had voted in the election were in fact ineligible to vote. They proclaimed: “In this city the majority against the democratic party was made up entirely by the black voters, such as never before were known to be qualified voters; whose names, in fact were never before borne on the list of voters!”
In 1834, Democrats both inside and outside Maine bitterly complained after Black members of the newly formed Whig Party gathered at the Abyssinian Meeting House to select delegates for the upcoming state party convention. The Ohio-based Delaware Gazette repeated the unsubstantiated claim that the Black Whigs had committed voter fraud: “Negroes who had not been six weeks in Portland, and who were there only as sailors … were permitted to vote in that city, and did vote the Whig ticket.”
In the lead up to the election of 1840, Black voters and white abolitionists turned out in force to vote against Democrat Congressman Albert C. Smith of Portland. This was because Smith had voted to renew the “gag rule” which banned anti-slavery petitions from being heard in Congress. Previously Smith had pledged to vote to repeal the “gag rule.” After Smith’s Whig opponent William Pitt Fessenden of Portland prevailed, Southern newspapers claimed Fessenden defeated a “firm and uncompromising friend of Southern Rights” by just 70 of 13,000 votes cast, with the “aid of 100 negro votes.”
But while Smith and the Democrats alleged that fraud had occurred, Rev. Amos Gerry Beman, a Black man who briefly served as pastor of the Abyssinian Meeting House, pointed out that Black voters merely exercised their rights under the Maine Constitution. “Any man,” he said, who “has been here three months, paid his tax, is entitled to vote, a right of which a very large majority of the colored people avail themselves. The most of them vote the Whig ticket, and through their influence and the abolitionists, the Hon. Wm. Pitt Fessenden, is elected in place of Albert Smith, who trampled upon the right of petition.”
African Americans remained loyal to the Republican Party for several decades after the Civil War due to the party’s role in ending slavery.
However, Black voters overwhelmingly supported Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 because of his federal relief programs that helped the poor and unemployed during the Great Depression. After Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed landmark Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, the vast majority of Black voters shifted to the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Republicans used what became known as the “Southern Strategy” to win over disaffected white Democrats who were opposed to Civil Rights for African Americans, resulting in a realignment in the two parties that continues to this day.