Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Voting Rights: the “Force Bill”

During the years of Reconstruction, after the Civil War, newly-freed Blacks in the South exercised their civil rights. They began voting in significant numbers, running for office, and winning seats in Congress.

But after the first few postwar decades, the Democratic Party began to reassert itself. By the end of the nineteenth century, African-Americans saw their civil rights shrink.

Political liberty for Blacks in South reached its peak sometime between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century. By 1900, fewer Blacks were voting - scared away from the polls by intimidation tactics - and fewer were being elected to office.

The Republicans wanted to open more opportunities for African-Americans to vote. The GOP proposed the ‘Force Bill,’ as historian Wyatt Wells explains:

Many Republicans sympathized with the plight of southern blacks. They valued the GOP’s history as the party of freedom and recognized that the Democrats’ lock on the South made it much harder for their party to win national elections. Unfortunately, the Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives for most of the 1880s, allowing them to block civil rights legislation. In 1888, however, the GOP won control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, and Republicans came to Washington with an ambitious agenda that included a voting rights bill. Senator George Hoar (R-MA) and Representative Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA) took charge of what its opponents soon dubbed the “Force Bill.” This measure provided for the appointment of federal election inspectors in any congressional district where a certain number of voters requested it. These inspectors would keep track of voting practices and election returns, and ideally, their very presence would discourage chicanery. If, however, inspectors disagreed with local or state authorities about the outcome of an election, the federal courts would decide the winner. Although less sweeping than the voting rights measures of Reconstruction or the Civil Rights era — among other things, it only applied to elections to federal office — the Force Bill would have acted as a brake on the pervasive fraud and intimidation that characterized elections in the South and might have set a precedent for further action. It enjoyed strong support among rank-and-file Republicans. As a party operative in Indiana wrote, “Our people are just as anxious for the passage of new elections laws as they were for the pension bill [for veterans of the Civil War]” — a strong statement considering the central role of veterans in the GOP.

Sadly, the Democratic Party had control of most of the state, county, and city governments in South. The Republicans were able to hold on to local offices only as long as the Blacks were voting.

Once the African-Americans had been scared away from the polls, the Democrats quickly took control of local government in the South. The ability of the federal government to correct the situation was limited.