Are You Barred from the Polls by Obsolete Law?

In this 1960 editorial, the Post urged states to eliminate stringent residency requirements and other rules that disenfranchised voters.

Our ridiculously outdated state voting laws are responsible for a mass disfranchisement of 13 percent of the nation’s total potential voting force.

When these laws were enacted, many of them a century and more ago, we were a less mobile people, and there was perhaps justification for requiring a person to live within the state for one and even two full years before being eligible to vote — as most states still do. But in these days of frequent job transfers and family moves, such waiting periods are far too long.

Similarly there is no valid reason why an otherwise qualified voter should forfeit his ballot simply because he has the misfortune to be incapacitated or must make an urgent business trip on Election Day. Yet most states have no provisions for balloting in such emergency situations. Help must be extended to those voters who want to do their civic duty and can’t.

—“Are You Barred from the Polls by Obsolete Law?,” Editorial, November 12, 1960

The editorial as it appeared in the magazine
Read “Are You Barred From the Polls by Obsolete Laws” from the November 12, 1960, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

This article is featured in the November/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Constatin Alajalov / SEPS

Should Uninformed People Be Allowed to Vote?

One of the basic tenets of American government is that all qualified citizens should be able to vote. We trust the American people to make the right choice.

But Americans’ faith in “the people” has been weakened in the past few years. A great division has yawned between the political parties, and it’s not uncommon to hear Americans claim that voters in the other party are just plain ignorant.

There’s no doubt that democratic elections are determined, to a degree, by ill- or uninformed voters — even though our public education system was created to avoid this. A recent poll showed most Americans don’t know basic facts about the Constitution. (A third of respondents couldn’t name a single branch of government or a single right protected by the Bill of Rights.) Even worse, people may be voting based on intentional disinformation.

In our earliest days, Americans limited the vote to a select minority of people deemed as “qualified.” The colonies only allowed men to vote who owned sufficient property and/or belonged to the correct church. After independence, the framers of the Constitution said nothing about who could vote; they left the question up to each state.

All of the new states kept some form of the old colonial restrictions. In New Hampshire, for example, only white males with £50 of personal property could vote. Virginian voters needed 50 acres of vacant land, 25 of cultivated land, and a house measuring 12×12 feet.

These restrictions were intended to create an electorate of presumably educated, responsible men. But the idea clashed with the principle of equality and, in time, voting restrictions eased. But many people were still prevented from voting.

In 1855, Connecticut became the first state to require voters to pass a literacy test. In 1921, New York required new voters to take a test proving they had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education. (About 15 percent flunked.) As late as 1959, the Supreme Court was ruling that such tests didn’t violate the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments.

The problem with literacy tests was that they could be used for political ends. They were used largely to keep African Americans and recent immigrants from voting. At the turn of the century in Mississippi, 60 percent of Black men couldn’t read. But the county clerk was the sole judge of who was literate, and therefore nearly 100 percent of Black voters were denied the right to vote.

Literacy tests persisted until the 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited the tests in states that had obviously discriminated against Black voters. Not until 1975 were literacy tests finally banned outright by Congress.

Now, almost everyone can vote, but how well-informed is the electorate? Over the years, surveys have tracked the surprisingly low level of voter knowledge. A 2010 survey found a third of respondents couldn’t tell if the Civil War came before or after the War of Independence. And today, one in five adults say they get most of their political news from social media, which often carries deliberate misinformation from domestic or foreign sources.

The chronic need for better educated voters causes an inherent problem in democracies, according to Jennifer Hochschild, professor of government at Harvard. In 2010, she noted all democracies believe informed voters are essential to good government while they continually extend suffrage to greater proportions of their people. But this tends to bring less informed voters into the electorate, which led to her ask, “If democracies need informed voters, how can they thrive while expanding enfranchisement?”

Recently the idea of an epistocracy — government by the knowledgeable — has been making a resurgence. In his book, Against Democracy, Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan justifies the idea by arguing the public has a right to be protected from individuals’ stupid mistakes.

He compares electoral votes to jury votes. If jurors pay no attention during a trial, or assign guilt based on their first impressions, or develop crazy conspiracy theories about the case, or are simply prejudiced against the accused, they’re incapable of rendering an informed verdict. The judge would have the right to declare a mistrial. The same standard should apply to choosing the president.

Brennan says incompetent voters should not exercise power of fellow citizens. If politicians or voters can’t fulfill their civic obligation morally and effectively, they should be barred from office or the voting booth.

His solution would be to test the political knowledge of all voters. Those votes of anyone who passed the test would be counted as two or more votes. Brennan’s test would be drawn up by 500 randomly selected citizens.

Americans might not appreciate people with a better-than-average-knowledge of government having a louder voice in an election. Citizens who’ve enjoyed a privileged life and the benefit of a good education would outweigh the will of the disadvantaged. And voters who don’t pass the test would naturally assume the test-passers were throwing their weight behind the laws and politicians who would benefit themselves.

Fortunately, democracy — even with its ignorant voters — works better than expected. Economist Amartya Sen points out that democracies have the most stable form of government and never have famines. Other researchers have found democracies generally work to avoid conflict and are less likely to wage war with other democracies. They have less civil conflict, less terrorism, and fewer attacks against women.

And, according to Professor Hochschild, voters aren’t as ignorant as they’re presented. They may not know the workings of legislation, but they are knowledgeable on issues that are important to them. In considering an incumbent presidential candidate, they can always ask themselves if they are better or worse off than four years earlier. Experience can fill in gaps in education; voters learn election by election.

Most importantly, unequal representation is contrary to the very foundations of American democracy. As John R. Allen of the Brookings Institution put it, “The United States is grounded upon the idea that individuals are owed the equal opportunity to voice their opinion as we, through our elected officials, chart the course of our nation.  This idea is foundational to our American values and informs a great deal about what it means to be a citizen of the United States.”

Democracy isn’t easy; it requires more attention and thought than many are ready to give it. President Kennedy believed voters should be far better informed, since, as he said, “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

But Winston Churchill was willing to accept democracy, and voters, as they were. After all, he said, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

Featured image: roibu / Shutterstock

Norman Rockwell Paints America at the Polls

This description and illustrations appeared in the November 4, 1944, issue of the Post.

It would be hard to name anything more thoroughly American than the grand and glorious event which takes place on a certain Tuesday of every fourth November. To portray this national phenomenon, to capture its traditional spirit, we could think of no living artist better equipped with native understanding than Norman Rockwell. In his search for a truly representative background, Rockwell went straight to the heart of America; specifically, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. By the time his pictorial preview was completed, he had created a new character: The human, likable citizen who adorns these pages and the cover of this Post. We have christened him Junius P. Wimple. You will, we hope, see more of him in Posts to come.

Rockwell, we reasoned, always knows his characters through and through. As Wimple’s creator, he knows how Wimple thinks, feels—and votes. Therefore, why not trick the artist into revealing Wimple’s secret, and thus learn the outcome of the election before it takes place? So we wired Rockwell: “Which one is Wimple voting for?” Promptly, the guileless artist answered by wire, collect: “For the winner.”

Man trying to decide who to vote for at the voting booth
(Norman Rockwell / © SEPS)

 

Voters checking in at their polling place
(Norman Rockwell / © SEPS)

 

A family discussing an upcoming election.
(Norman Rockwell / © SEPS)

 

A voting booth
(Norman Rockwell / © SEPS)

 

Campaign workers offering a man a cigar outside a polling place
(Norman Rockwell / © SEPS)

 

Man in a voting booth deciding whom to vote for
(Norman Rockwell / © SEPS)

 

Voters throw a party after their man won an election
(Norman Rockwell / © SEPS)

Vintage Ads: Elections in Advertising

Advertisement during election season, featuring a queue of voters at the ballot box
“Another Victory for Equal Rights!”
The Royal Tailors
October 31, 1914
(Click to Enlarge)

While women may have been relieved to hear that they had equal rights when it came to tailored clothing (and that “the greatest designers of women’s clothes have always been men”), they wouldn’t have the right to vote for another six years.

 

Full page advertisement for James Cox
Cox for President
September 11, 1920
(Click to Enlarge)

Presidential candidate James M. Cox ran this full-page advertisement in the Post for the 1920 election, but his Republican competitor Warren G. Harding won in a landslide. Harding’s 26.2 percent victory margin remains the largest popular-vote percentage margin in presidential elections since the re-election of James Monroe in 1820, when Monroe ran unopposed.

 

Full page advertisement for the Warren Harding campaign, featuring the mothers of the President and Vice-President
“Mothers of the Next President and Vice-President”
October 30, 1920
(Click to Enlarge)

The Republicans took a different tack in advertising their presidential candidate, featuring the mothers of Harding and vice presidential candidate Calvin Coolidge. Emphasizing their opposition to the League of Nations, the ad promised that “When you vote for Harding and Coolidge, typical sons of noble American mothers, you will vote to maintain the independence of the United States.”

 

Election season magazine advertisement for radios
“The family takes to politics”
Radiola
October 11, 1924
(Click to Enlarge)

Women had recently won the right to vote, and Radiola promised to keep them informed about political candidates: “Politics was no place for ladies, and what little the women knew about it they gleaned from scraps of the men folks’ talk. Radio has changed it all.”

 

Full page ad by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company asking readers to vote in an upcoming election
“Vote!”
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
October 25, 1924
(Click to Enlarge)

“The vote is a duty of citizenship in a democracy, and unless all of us recognize that duty, and faithfully perform it, we subject ourselves to the danger of control by a selfish and self-seeking few.”

 

Ad by the Metropolitan Insurance Company asking people to vote
“Speak up!”
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
October 27, 1928

“By failing to vote, you offer encouragement to the political plunderer and other unscrupulous persons who are eager to profit by the opportunity you give them.”

 

Two neighbors discussing their votes in an elections
“Who you votin’ for, Elmer?”
Ethyl Gasoline Corporation
October 31, 1936
(Click to Enlarge)

This ad encouraged consumers to “vote for” Ethyl gasoline to keep the “knock” out of their engines, especially during winter. Ethyl Gasoline Corporation was founded in 1923, a collaboration between GM, Esso, and DuPont to manufacture an additive to make leaded gasoline. Many workers at the plants soon began to suffer from confusion, hallucinations, and even death from lead poisoning. Lead as an additive in gasoline was phased out in the mid-1970s.

 

Advertisement featuring a man filling out his election ballot
“Liberty Is Spelled with an X”
The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company
November 2, 1940

“Even though some of us may forget, the enemies of democracy know that American freedom begins at the ballot-box . . . and when the ballot-box is neglected, our liberty will fall an easy victim to aggression.”

 

Full page ad featuring two cartoon maids discussing the recent loss of their employer
“Just think—another million votes would have put him in the White House!”
Ladies Home Journal
November 2, 1940
(Click to Enlarge)

The Ladies Home Journal tried to convince prospective advertisers with the rather convoluted argument that because the course of most presidential elections could have been changed with a million votes, the Journal’s million-family increase in circulation should compel them to buy ads.

 

World War II era election ad
“Your Vote Can Help Win This War!”
The Saturday Evening Post
October 31, 1942
(Click to Enlarge)

In the midst of World War II, the Post used a page from its own magazine to encourage people to vote in this mid-term election: “And this year—of all years—let it be a soberly studied vote. A vote for principles—and for the man who will forego considerations of party and political gain in the interests of the national good. A vote for the man in any office, best equipped to face the crucial days ahead—honestly, judiciously, intelligently.”

Rockwell Video Minute: Arguing Politics Over Breakfast

See all of the videos in our Rockwell Video Minute series.

Featured image: Norman Rockwell / SEPS

Cartoons: Election Time

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Two men talking about an upcoming election in a bar filled with FDR memorabilia
“Frankly, I almost have to vote for him. I can’t stand the expense of redecoration!”
Jeff Keate
October 7, 1944

 

women agree to meet after the election after their husbands beat the crud out of each other over a political argument
“We must get together again…sometime after the election.”
Bill King
September 13, 1952

 

An aide congratulates his boss after he gives a speech during a senatorial campaign.
“Great speech, sir. I liked the straightforward way you dodged those issues.”
Hoff
July 12, 1952

 

Elephant grabs a man out of a window with his trunk while campaigning for a political candidate
“You’ve got to hand it to Ribley, he certainly gets out the vote.”
Richter
March 15, 1952

 

Man talks to his friend about his physical injuries, which were apparently caused by someone who claimed he doesn't care about politics
“All I can say is, for a guy who never bothers to vote, he certainly takes politics seriously.”
Stan Hunt
December 8, 1951

 

A candidate and his team leaves a crowd at a train station, with a mother's baby
“One of the most appreciative crowds I’ve ever talked to…look at that woman, she’s still waving!”
Clyde Lamb
December 1, 1951

 

Woman returns to a polling place asking if she can change her vote.
“I know I voted this morning, but I’ve changed my mind.”
David Pascal
November 5, 1955

 

Woman asks her husband for the name of a candidate at the voting booth
“What’s the name of that man I simply despise?”
Don Tobin
November 4, 1950

 

Woman binds her husband to a chair so that he doesn't thrash about while hearing the election returns.
“There now, I think we’re ready to hear the election returns.”
Mary Gibson
November 4, 1944

Want even more laughs? Subscribe to the magazine for cartoons, art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

In a Word: How We Got to the Polls

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

All across the country, people will head to the polls without even realizing the repetition (at least historically) in that phrase “head to the polls.”

Middle Low German pol referred to one’s head, but especially the top and back of the head, where the hair grows. This became the Middle English polle (still meaning “head”) around the beginning of the 14th century. So from a historical perspective, “head to the polls” is really “head to the heads.”

Fairly quickly though, synecdoche — the rhetorical device that uses the name of one part of something to refer to the whole thing, like calling your car your “wheels” — took over, and by the mid-14th century, poll was being used to refer to an individual person or animal.

This might bring to mind the idea of taking a headcount; that’s exactly what was happening when shepherds, cowherds, and community organizers took count “by polls”: They were counting heads, one by one.

But people didn’t show up to be counted for no reason. By the 1620s, we find the verb poll meaning not to count heads, but to count votes. And from there, it’s a clear shot to a wider poll-based election vocabulary — including polling place and poll tax — by the 19th century.

This amazing clip from The Saturday Evening Post of August 19, 1826, finds some men literally dying to vote. In it, we find polling used as a synonym for voting and poll as the place where votes are cast.

Editorial clipping
From the August 19, 1826, edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

The vocabulary that comes into play during elections stems from a wide variety of sometimes surprising etymological sources, some of which I’ve written about before. Check out “What Is a Caucus Anyway?,” “A Candidate as White as Snow,” and “Where Your Ballot Comes From” for a little language trivia you can share with other voters when you poll to the heads — er, head to the polls.

Featured image: Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

How Much Does Your Vote Weigh?

In 1916, the election was decided by just 3.1 percent of the popular vote.

John F. Kennedy won the presidency by just 0.2 percent.

And in 2000 the presidency was ultimately decided by just 537 votes.

In the next election, you might be among the handful of voters who decides an election.

Theoretically, your vote for the president has the same impact as any of the other 227,000,000 qualified voters in the U.S. And the candidate with the most votes would win.

But the electoral college changes the weight of your vote depending on where you live. And it can give the presidency to the candidate who may have lost the popular vote.

The last time a candidate won popular vote but lost the electoral college vote was 2016, but it  wasn’t the only time. It has occurred 5 times before in our history.

When the electoral college was created in 1787, it was originally intended to balance the electoral power so that Americans in sparsely populated areas weren’t outvoted by the people in the cities. At the time, most Americans were living in rural areas; reducing the electoral power of urban voters would have a limited effect.

Today, the urban/rural division in the population is 80/20, but that rural minority has considerable clout in Washington. After the September 11 attacks, for example, Wyoming received seven times as much Homeland-Security money per capita as New York.

Each state has a set number of electoral votes based on its population. With two exceptions — Maine and Nebraska — the candidate who wins the majority of each state’s popular votes is awarded all of the state’s electoral votes. So within your state, your vote has the same weight as any other voter.

But your electoral college impact depends on your state. Wyoming, for instance, with the lowest population (589,000), has three electoral votes. California, with its population of 39,144,818, has 55.

However, the states’ electoral votes aren’t determined by a uniform calculation. Based on 2016’s returns, Wyoming’s electoral votes were drawn from 586,107 residents, or one electoral vote per 195,369 voters. But California’s electoral votes worked out to one electoral vote for 711,723 voters.

You could say that a Wyoming voter had 3.6 times the weight of a California voter.

This is the most extreme example. But if you do the same math to compare the ten most populous and then least populous states, you’ll find their relative electoral weight is a ratio of 1 (most populous) to 2.5 (least populous).

This fact has led to assertions that voters in low-population states have an undue influence in national politics.

But Dale Durran says this isn’t the only distortion of the representative vote. In an article for theconversation.com, the University of Washington mathematics professor found another factor that will affect your vote’s weight.

He divided the total number of America’s electoral votes — 538 — by the 136 million votes cast in 2016 election. The result was the electoral weight of an average vote: one four-millionth of an electoral vote. But this number, as we’ve seen, is altered by the electoral college. And, he finds, it is also altered by the number of ballots cast within a state. Since the electoral votes are fixed for each state, the weight of each ballot diminishes slightly as more ballots are cast.

If you calculate the electoral college weight of each vote with the voter turnout in the state, Wyoming voters still have the greatest weight (2.97), followed the District of Columbia (2.45), and Vermont (2.42). Florida voters had the least weight: 0.78.

Durran illustrates the point with two states — Oklahoma and Oregon — which have the same number of electoral votes. Because fewer Oklahomans cast their ballots (52 percent) than Oregonians (66 percent), an Oklahoma voter had a weight of 1.22 while an Oregon voter has only 0.89.

His analysis shows that your location can raise the weight of your vote, aside from its electoral college value. The impact of these small numbers of votes in battleground states can make a big difference in who gets elected.

Durran identifies five key states where the 2016 race was close. The electoral votes in four of the states —Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Michigan (16), Pennsylvania (20), and Florida (29) — were decided by just one percent of the votes.

And these were states whose votes had an electoral college weight of less than 0.85. This means, for instance, that fewer than 27,000 Wisconsin voters decided who got their states’ electoral votes.

If you live in one of these states, your vote may not have the same weight in the electoral college as someone from Wyoming or D.C. But Durran’s analysis shows that a relatively small number of people can make a big difference in the outcome of an election.

So if you decide to stay home on election day, you’re not only giving up your vote, but you’re also conferring additional voting power to another voter – one whose interests and values might be at odds with yours. Even if the math shows your vote doesn’t count quite as much as someone’s else, it’s still your country, and your voice, and your chance to make a difference. So vote.

Featured image: hafakot / Shutterstock

In a Word: The Racist Origins of ‘Bulldozer’

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

When you see the word bulldozer, you might conjure an image of a large yellow machine with caterpillar treads flattening everything before it with its steel-toothed blade. Or maybe your mind goes back to a smaller Tonka version of this mechanical behemoth that you played with as a child. Taken on its own, with no context, bulldozer might even call to mind some serene bovine scene, perhaps Ferdinand the Bull dozing among the daisies.

How jarring, then, to discover bulldozer’s horrible, violent beginnings.

Bulldozer (originally spelled bulldoser) first appeared in the run-up to the election of 1876. That was the final year of President Ulysses S. Grant’s second term in office, and he had unexpectedly declined to run for a third term. In his place, the Republican party put its support behind Ohio Governor and former U.S. Representative Rutherford B. Hayes, while the Democratic candidate was New York Governor Samuel Tilden.

This was an important election. All the former Confederate states had returned to the Union, post-Civil War Reconstruction was ongoing, and this was the first presidential election in which African-American men could vote for someone who wasn’t Ulysses S. Grant. The outcome of the election of 1876 would shape the future of the South for years to come.

The former slave owners and secessionists in the South knew it, and they weren’t about to sit back and let the North and their former slaves usurp their power and privilege. Despite three new federal laws in 1870 and ’71 designed to protect Black Americans from violence and coercion at the polls, many were bulldosed into silence. Bulldose was a slang term derived from either “a dose fit for a bull” or “a dose of the bull” — the second being a reference to the bullwhip. Bulldosers used physical violence against Black voters either to keep them from the polls or to intimidate them into voting Democratic.

Going into the election, in five states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina — a majority of registered voters were African American. One would expect, in a fair election, that the Republican candidate would easily take these states. But after the votes were tallied, Tilden had won the popular vote in Alabama and Mississippi.

The results in the other three states were even more unexpected. After counting had finished, both parties claimed victory in those states. On election night, Tilden was the presumed winner with 184 electoral votes, 19 votes ahead of Hayes and 1 vote away from holding a majority.

The 20 electoral votes of these states (plus Oregon) remained undecided for months as first the two parties and then the two houses of Congress launched separate investigations. Democrats and the Democratic-controlled House committee accused the Republicans of ballot stuffing and coercion. Republicans and the Republican-controlled Senate committee accused the Democrats of the same.

In the end, the presidential election was decided behind closed doors. In what came to be called the Compromise of 1877, the Democrats conceded the remaining electoral votes to the Republicans, making Rutherford Hayes our 19th president, but in return, federal troops were to be removed from the South, essentially ending Reconstruction and returning power to the same men who had controlled the South during the Civil War.

Though violent intimidation at the polls certainly continued, Southern officials found new ways to suppress the Black vote, including Jim Crow laws and grandfather clauses. Bulldosing took on the wider meaning of “to coerce or restrain by use of force,” and it was ripe for a more literal use when large, seemingly unstoppable machines came on the scene.

A clipping from an 1899 Country Gentleman.
A generic use of bulldose to mean “to coerce with the threat of force,” from the January 12, 1899, issue of Country Gentleman.

The machine we think of as a bulldozer was invented in the early 1920s, and by the initial months of the Great Depression, we start to find the term bulldozer in writing, with that Z further obscuring the word’s origins. The violent, racist origin of bulldozer is one reason many people now use the term earth mover to describe these massive machines.

If you’d like to learn more about the election of 1876 — including commentary from the Post while the election results were in flux — read “The Worst Presidential Election in U.S. History.”

Featured image: Andrey Yurlov / Shutterstock

Con Watch: Presidential Election Scams

Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

The 2020 presidential election is in high gear and has captured the attention of the American public. Of course, anything that the public is interested in becomes an opportunity for scammers to exploit, and the presidential election is no exception. Here are some common election-year scams and how to avoid them.

Robocall Campaign Solicitations

Both former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump are actively fund raising as we head toward the final days of the campaign. Scammers are making robocalls in which they pose as campaign workers seeking your donations. This particular scam can easily appear legitimate. Caller ID can be tricked through a technique called “spoofing” to make it appear as if the call is coming from a candidate or some political organization, and recordings of the candidate can easily be incorporated into the call to make the call appear more legitimate. Even more significantly, calls from political candidates and other political calls are exempt from the federal Do-Not-Call List, so it is legal for you to get a call from a politician or Political Action Group (PAC) seeking donations even if you are enrolled in the Do-Not-Call List.

How to Avoid this Scam: Whenever you receive a telephone call, you can never be sure as to who is really contacting you, so you should never give personal or financial information to anyone over the phone whom you have not called. If you do wish to contribute to a political campaign, the best way to do this is by going to the candidate’s official website and make your contribution. Scammers can also set up phony websites for the presidential candidates, so make sure that you are going to the candidate’s real website. You can’t trust a Google or other search engines to list the real site first because sophisticated scammers are adept at getting their phony website a high placement in search results. One good way to confirm that a particular website is that of the real candidate or Political Action Committee (PAC) is to use the website whois.com, which will tell you who owns the website you are considering. If it turns out that the website is owned by someone in Russia, it is a pretty good indication that it is a phony website.

Even then, make sure that when you are giving your donation online that the website address begins with https instead of just http. Https indicates that your communication is being encrypted for better security. If you are being asked to contribute to a political organization rather than a candidate, you should definitely do your research to determine the legitimacy of the organization before making a donation. You can check out PACs at the Federal Election Commission or the Center for Responsive Politics.

Email and Text Campaign Solicitation Scams

Political candidates and PACs supporting them may try to contact you through email and text message solicitations, but once again, you can never be sure if the communication is coming from a legitimate source or a scammer.

How to Avoid this Scam: Never click on links in these emails or text messages because the risk of downloading dangerous malware is too great. Instead, if you are inclined to contribute to a particular candidate or PAC, go directly to their website to make your contribution, but again make sure to confirm that you have gone to the real website and not that of a scammer posing as the candidate or PAC.

Registration Scams

Another common election time scam involves a call purportedly from your city or town clerk informing you that you need to re-register or you will be removed from the voting lists. You are then told that you can re-register over the phone merely by providing some personal information, such as your Social Security number. Again, through spoofing, the scammer can manipulate your Caller ID to make the call appear as if it is coming from your city or town clerk.

How to Avoid this Scam: The truth is that your city or town clerk would never call and tell you that you need to re-register. Voter registration is never done by phone. If you have any concerns as to your voter registration status, you can go to your city or town’s website or call your city or town clerk to confirm your status.

Political Poll Scams

Political polls have been a major part of our election process for years. Generally, people are contacted by telephone to answer questions about the candidates and their policies. Because it is so common at this time of year to be called by a political pollster, scammers will pose as pollsters in an effort to trick victims into providing information that can be used for identity theft. Often they will dangle the reward of a gift card or other prize to lure people into participating in the scam poll. Once again spoofing can be used to make the call appear legitimate.

How to Avoid this Scam: Legitimate pollsters do not offer prizes or other compensation for participating in their polls. They also will never ask for personal information such as your Social Security number, credit card number, or banking information. Anyone asking for such information is a scammer and you should hang up immediately.

Featured image: David Carillet / Shutterstock

Considering History: Kamala Harris’s Heritage and the Legacies of Slavery and Sexual Violence

This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

In the immediate aftermath of Joe Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris to be his vice presidential running mate, a controversial Newsweek article raised questions of whether Harris, the daughter of two immigrants, would be eligible to serve in that role if elected. The article, authored by a right-wing law professor who had previously run against Harris for the position of California’s Attorney General, doesn’t hold legal water; Harris was born in Oakland and so was, from birth, a United States citizen, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But the article has reignited debates over that Constitutional concept of birthright citizenship, one that President Trump has at various times expressed a desire to do away with.

While Harris’s own citizenship status under that existing law is clear and indisputable (as Newsweek has subsequently admitted), there is another, more genuinely complex part of her heritage and family that has also received renewed attention since the VP announcement. In 2018, Harris’s father Donald, a Jamaican-American immigrant and retired Stanford University economics professor, wrote an article about his Jamaican ancestors in which he argued that he is descended on his father’s side from the infamous 19th century white slave owner Hamilton Brown, who ran one of the island’s largest plantations and was responsible for the importation and enslavement of hundreds of Africans.

Donald Harris’s claims about his relationship to Hamilton Brown have been used by conservative pundits like Dinesh D’Souza and others as a “gotcha” moment, as the basis for arguments that neither Harris nor her supporters can discuss the legacies of slavery and racism since she herself is descended from a white slave owner. But in truth that heritage, which is shared by a significant number of Americans of African descent, reflects one of the most essential and too-often forgotten histories of slavery and the sexual violence that accompanied it. And if we set aside political and partisan concerns, Harris’s story can help us understand those vital histories of slavery, sexual violence, race, and heritage, the legacies of which are certainly still with us in 21st century America.

One of the most consistent and central elements of chattel slavery, as it was practiced throughout the Americas, was the rape of enslaved women by male slave owners. It is difficult if not impossible to ascertain the percentage of enslaved women who were so violated (and thus of enslaved children who were the product of such acts), both because the practice was so ubiquitous and because it was for centuries under-narrated in histories of slavery. The latter trend has been challenged in recent years, as illustrated by historian Rachel Feinstein’s When Rape Was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence During Slavery (2019) among other works.

Another recent trend that has made it more possible to grapple with these histories is the rise of ancestry studies and the corresponding use of DNA analysis to trace heritages. For example, the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., a pioneer in the use of such data to analyze individual, familial, and collective ancestries, estimates that “a whopping 35 percent of all African-American men descend from a white male ancestor who fathered a mulatto child sometime in the slavery era, most probably from rape or coerced sexuality.” And since that number reflects 21st century identities and all the other factors that have contributed to them, it likely only scratches the surface of how widespread these practices and their effects were in the era of slavery.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates (lev radin / Shutterstock)

While many of those experiences are unfortunately lost to history, individual case studies can help us engage with the aftermath of sexual violence under slavery. As I highlighted in this July 4th column, the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings offers one particularly prominent such case study. After nearly two centuries of rumors and debate, both DNA analysis and the pioneering work of scholar Annette Gordon-Reed have confirmed that Jefferson did rape and father at least one child (and almost certainly six or more children) with Hemings, one of the enslaved women on his Monticello plantation. Historians have only begun to uncover the complex stories of the descendants of those sexual assaults, enslaved young men and women who, despite their famous father and the promise of freedom that came with that status, still experienced some of the worst of antebellum American slavery and racism.

Another of the 19th century’s most famous Americans, Frederick Douglass, experienced life as the child of sexual assault under slavery. In the opening chapter of his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass notes his belief that his father, whom he never knew, was the white slave owner of the Maryland plantation onto which he was born. As usual with his autoethnographic works, Douglass uses this personal detail to illuminate social and historical meanings, noting for example that the law making the children of enslaved women themselves slaves “is done too obviously to administer to [slaveowners’] own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.” But Douglass also empathetically notes the potentially painful effects for all involved, from masters having to sell their own children to “one white son” having to “ply the gory lash to his [brother’s] naked back.”

A portrait of a young Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (Wikimedia Commons)

Douglass did not have the chance to know his mother well before her tragic death, so he was unable to write about her perspective. But another prominent personal narrative of slavery, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), captures the experience of enslaved women under the constant threat of sexual violence. As Jacobs puts it in her chapter “The Trials of Girlhood,” “there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men…She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child.” And through her own constant battles with her despicable master Dr. Flint, Jacobs traces how “the influences of slavery had the same effect on me that they had on other young girls; they had made me prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of the world.”

Portrait of Harriet Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs (Wikimedia Commons)

Individuals like Douglass and Jacobs managed to escape the horrors of slavery and publish their stories. But of course the vast majority of both enslaved women raped by their owners and the children of those rapes remained enslaved throughout their lives. We get a glimpse of such experiences in another personal narrative, Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853). At the final plantation to which Northrup is taken, he meets Patsey, an enslaved young woman whose beauty and strong will make her a singular focus of her owner Edwin Epps. If not enslaved, Northrup writes, Patsey “would have been chief among ten thousand of her people”; but on the Epps plantation, this impressive young woman becomes instead “the enslaved victim of lust and hate,” with “no comfort in her life.” Although the illegally kidnapped Northup is eventually rescued from the Epps plantation, he can do nothing for Patsey; a tragic reality captured in a culminating scene from the 2012 film adaptation of 12 Years, as Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) watches Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) recede as he rides away from the plantation.

Solomon Northup in his plantation suit
Solomon Northup (Wikimedia Commons)

No one can blame Northup in this moment, as there is nothing he can do for Patsey. But for far too long, both our laws and our collective memories likewise abandoned enslaved women like Patsey and their children to sexual violence and its effects. We cannot change the past, but—with heritages like Kamala Harris’s to help guide us—we can remember those histories and consider all that they mean for all Americans.

Featured image: Kim Wilson / Shutterstock

What Happens When You Talk About Politics in Person

The day before the Iowa caucuses, I boarded a bus at 5 a.m. to travel five-and-a-half hours to Dubuque, Iowa. A group of about 50 of us descended on the old river city to canvass potential voters. That is, we walked door to door and tried to convince whoever was inside to caucus for our candidate. I won’t say which candidate we were speaking for, but — as a hint — it wasn’t Deval Patrick or Michael Bennet.

I’ve canvassed before — for candidates and specific issues — but Iowa was a little different. To be sure, on the day before their highly publicized caucus in an election year that is looking more and more to be incredibly dramatic and hotly contested, most Iowans were sick of talking politics. Since the state is placed on a disproportionately high pedestal in the primaries, Iowans are routinely bombarded by throngs of presidential hopefuls every four years.

We arrived at the campaign office in Dubuque, and the local staff gave us a brief training in political canvassing. Of course, the goal is to persuade voters that your candidate is best for the job, but that isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds.

Like a significant portion of the country, I like to discuss politics online. Political discourse, between news comment threads, Facebook memes, and nonstop tweeting, ranges from enlightening (really!) to noxious to utterly untrue. The internet has transformed the way we talk about politics and government.

And, still, there is something to be said for a face-to-face conversation.

In spite of the potentially tremendous reach of a well-run online campaign, it doesn’t always have the same effect as the physical presence of a group of canvassers — especially if that group numbers in the thousands. Humans, in the flesh, talking to other humans can eliminate many perceptions of disingenuousness that percolate from the web. Of all the things I’ve been accused of while canvassing, being a robot has never been one of them.

After we received information on where we’d be canvassing, I set out with a group to the location. A local guy drove us to a suburban-looking neighborhood on the outskirts. He had grown up in Dubuque and was proud of his city, so it seemed as though he took the long route to show us its glowing golden-domed courthouse and the historic hillside cable-car elevator.

When he dropped us off, we marched up to the first house on our list. We had a name — let’s say Jason — and an age, 41. I knocked on the door, and we waited. This is the worst part of canvassing: awkwardly waiting on a stranger’s doorstep, feeling entirely out of place. When Jason opened the door, he confirmed our fears. He cut off our opening line, saying “You people have been here three times this weekend. If this keeps up, I’m going to vote for Trump.”

He closed the door on us, but it didn’t seem as though we were going to be successful in getting him to fill out a caucus confirmation card anyway, so we moved on to the next house. Door after door, we were met with disinterest, irritation, or no one at all. We began to think the endeavor was a bust. Even if we were passively distributing literature on Iowans’ front doors, it seemed as though we wouldn’t get the opportunity to turn out any voters.

Then we met David, a young dad who was just intoxicated enough to indulge us with friendliness and attention (it was the day of the Big Game, after all). He didn’t follow politics much, and he wasn’t aware of the caucus happening the next day, but he was interested in how policies could directly influence his family’s lives. We told David that we travelled hours that morning to talk to people like him because we believed in our candidate.

Even when people aren’t interested in following a political horse race, they can recognize genuine passion in a face-to-face conversation. A person who doesn’t devour the news might not have much of an impression of a presidential candidate’s tailored persona, but they can probably gauge the enthusiasm of a volunteer looking them in the eyes and describing their personal stakes in an election.

David was receptive, but we weren’t convinced that he would turn out to caucus the next day. It was a lot to ask: showing up in the evening to some church or college lecture hall and standing around for a few hours while people shuffle around the room to declare their support for one candidate or another. Many people we spoke to said they had work or other commitments that would prevent them from attending.

Toward the end of our route, at the second-to-last door we knocked, Amy answered the door. We were looking for a different voter at that address, but she said it was her sister-in-law, who hadn’t lived there in years. When we knocked, her dogs barked and woke her child from a nap. We apologized, but she was happy to see us and interested in talking about our candidate.

“I don’t know all of the issues up and down,” she said, “but I’m a definite supporter.”

Amy was a veteran, and she was hopeful about the kinds of changes our candidate could bring about. I asked her if she planned to caucus the next day. She was surprised that it was happening so soon, and she said she wouldn’t be able to make it because of her kids.

“You can take children to the caucus,” I said.

But she said it was during dinnertime and would be a hassle.

During canvassing training, volunteers are instructed to make the conversation as personal as possible. Before leaving, though, it is important to make a definite ask for support in the caucus. Even though it can be hard, it is important to let people know that they are being counted on. I looked at Amy and the bright blond boy hanging at her waist. She had been eager to talk about the issues and the political direction of the country at length, but making her voice count was just out of reach. I handed her a flyer with her caucus information on it and weakly asked her to reconsider.

We talked to others, some Republicans and some with plans to caucus for other Democrats. Occasionally they seemed reticent, like we might hurl arguments or insults once we found out they didn’t support our candidate. There wasn’t the time or appetite for that, though. We had doors to knock and they had snow to plow. We wished them well, and they did the same.

On the long bus ride home, I couldn’t help but think of Amy as my great failure of the day. Maybe she would caucus after all, but probably not. Should I have pushed her a little harder? Could it possibly have made a difference? Maybe the best scenario we could hope for was that she realized some other people felt strongly in the same ways she did, and, even though it can be nerve-wracking, it’s not so impossible to talk about it.

Featured image: Shutterstock

In a Word: What Is a Caucus Anyway?

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

While the Iowa Republican Caucus proceeded easily this week, with a basic secret ballot and no real challenger to the incumbent president, the Democratic Caucus didn’t go quite so smoothly. Not only do Democrats have more candidates to choose from, but they also rely on a more complicated caucus system that involves voters at more than 1,600 locations physically moving around the room to show their preferences.

And while many have been wondering about the process, the outcome, and the future viability of such a system, some of us spent our time wondering, “Where does the word caucus even come from anyway?” That turns out to be a more difficult question to answer than “Who won the Iowa Democratic Caucus?”

Why? Because no one really knows for sure. Merriam-Webster Dictionaries lists the etymology of caucus as “origin unknown.”

Although we don’t know the word’s precise origin or derivation, there are some things we definitely do know about the word, and there are theories beyond that. Here’s what we do know about the word caucus:

According to Merriam-Webster, John Adams reported in February 1763 of the upcoming meeting of “the Boston Caucus Club,” a group of city elders doing just what a caucus does today: choosing who will fill which positions in the local government. Why he chose that word is a something of a mystery.

The primary theory about the word’s origin is that it comes from the Algonquian word caucauasu. Algonquian is a Native American language group that was widespread in the North and Northeast and is the source of such common English words as moccasin, chipmunk, and Wyoming. In a Virgina dialect, caucauasu meant “elder, advisor.”

But while Adams’ Caucus Club was ostensibly a political gathering, it was also a social one. It’s possible that the word was derived from the Modern Greek kaukos “drinking cup,” something one might find in large quantities at a Caucus Club meeting.

It’s doubtful that Adams himself coined the word. Though his Caucus Club announcement is the word’s first appearance in print in a political context that we know of, it likely was had been circulating for some while in speech and in other documents that have been lost to time. And the longer it circulated, the more opportunity it had to evolve from its earliest iterations.

So we’re left only with theories. Unless new historical documents are uncovered pointing a clearer way to the beginning of this word’s history, we may never truly know where caucus came from.

Featured image: Shutterstock

10 Sorest Losers in American Politics

Americans like to think of themselves, and their representatives, as good sports. We admire winners who are humble, generous, and respectful of their opponents. We also admire losers who take defeat with stoic acceptance, good grace, and full responsibility.

But sometimes Americans don’t get the politicians they want. Winners rub their opponents’ face in the dirt, and losers either blame others for their loss or refuse to admit defeat altogether. Here is our list of the ten sorest losers in American politics.

1. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson (U.S. Senate)

In the 1824 presidential election, there were four candidates, all from the same party. (The opposing party had dissolved.) None of the candidates had enough electoral votes to meet the minimum number for a presidential win. Jackson had the most votes, but John Quincy Adams was close behind. In such cases, the contest was decided by the House of Representatives.

One of the other candidates, Henry Clay, allowed his congressional supporters to switch support to Adams, who then won the election. Once in the White House, Adams made Clay Secretary of State. Jackson was furious. He stormed back to Tennessee, telling everyone about the “corrupt bargain” that had robbed him of the White House. For the next four years, Jackson and his followers relentlessly attacked Adams and his administration. Jackson called Clay “the Judas of the west [who] has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver.”

2. Teddy Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt speaking to delegates at the 1912 Republican convention
Roosevelt speaking at the 1912 convention. (Library of Congress)

In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt had fallen out with his protégé, President William Taft. He challenged Taft for the Republican primary for the coming election, confident the Republicans would turn to him. When they chose Taft instead, he stormed out of the convention and formed his own political party. Between them, Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win.

3. Richard Nixon

After losing the presidency in 1960, Richard Nixon lost the governorship of California two years later. At a press conference following the announcement of his defeat, he addressed reporters with feigned good humor, saying, “For sixteen years…you’ve had a lot of fun… As I leave you I want you to know, just think how much you’ll be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” (Nixon was not just self-pitying, but absolutely wrong.)


Nixon’s speech following his 1962 loss in California. (Vimeo, University of Virginia’s Miller Center)

4. Anthony Weiner

Anthony Weiner.
Anthony Weiner (U.S. Congress)

Anthony Weiner lost his bid to become New York’s mayor in 2013, winning only 4.9% of the vote (not surprisingly). After making his concession speech, he left his campaign headquarters. As he stepped outside, reporters shouted questions at him. He made no reply as he made his way to a limousine. But once inside, Weiner responded to the reporters by raising a middle finger to them.

5. Gary Smith

In 2012, Gary Smith ran for the Republican nomination for Congress in New Mexico. When many of his nominating petition signatures were ruled invalid, he was dropped from the primary ballot. He responded by slashing the tires of the candidate who won, an act that was captured on security cameras. After posting bond, he was released, but picked up again when security cameras detected him lurking around the successful candidate’s home. He was sentenced to 30 months for “aggravated stalking.”

6.   Marilyn Musgrave

Marilyn Musgrave.
Marilyn Musgrave (U.S. Congress)

Marilyn Musgrave lost re-election for a congressional district in Colorado in 2008. Rather than phone her congratulations to her opponent or give a gracious concession speech, she said nothing. She made no comment to the media, her supporters, or her staff. Six months later, according to Politico, she released a four-page letter declaring her intention to form a political action group and blaming her defeat on “extremists [who] finally spent enough money, spread enough lies, and fooled enough voters to defeat me.”

7. Ralph Nader

In 2008, Ralph Nader ran for president. He didn’t win, just as he hadn’t in 2000.

After acknowledging defeat, he said this about President-elect Barack Obama: “His choice, basically, is whether he’s going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations.” Nader was asked to clarify that comment by Fox News’ Shepherd Smith.

Smith: “I just wonder if in hindsight you wish you’d used a phrase other than ‘Uncle Tom?’”

Nader: (emphatically) “Not at all.”

8. Allen West

Allen West.
Allen West (U.S. Congress)

After losing in 2012, Florida congressman Allen West contested the vote for two weeks before releasing the weakest possible concession to his opponent. Instead of acknowledging he lost, he said, “I am announcing that I will take no further action to contest the outcome of this election.” He wished his opponent luck, but gave his supporters reason not to view the victor as legitimate. There were still unexplained “inaccuracies in the results,” West said. He knew there were voting irregularities, but now was not the time to look into them. He said, “We uncovered a lot of things that now the people can continue to pursue.”

9.   Joe Miller

In 2010, Lisa Murkowski lost Alaska’s GOP primary to Joe Miller, but then she won the election with an unprecedented write-in campaign, which required a painstaking hand-count of the ballots. As days passed, Miller refused to accept the results, despite party members and the state’s newspapers urging him to concede. Miller filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations by election officials, followed by a separate state court lawsuit. “Are we a nation,” he asked, “where some bureaucrat can, in the heat of the moment, make up basically the rules by which ballots are counted?” Because of Miller’s legal challenges, Murkowski wasn’t certified until December 30. That following June, Miller was required to pay the state of Alaska $18,000 in legal fees because a judge determined that the intent of Miller’s lawsuit was to win the election and not to uphold the state constitution, as he had claimed.

10. Chris McDaniel

In 2014, Mississippi State Senator Chris McDaniel pursued the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator, but lost in nasty, gloves-off race that featured nursing home break-ins, courthouse lock-ins, and “indecent things with animals.” McDaniel said the nomination had been compromised by “literally dozens” of voting irregularities. He offered a list of 15,000 illegal or questionable votes — a list that McDaniel’s attorney was surprised to see his own name on.

Let’s Hear It for the Gracious Losers

Lastly, there is the example of an exceptional concession speech, which was made by New York representative Joe Crowley after losing the Democratic primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Having announced his defeat, Crowley picked up his guitar and, with a backup band, played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” dedicating it to his opponent. Now that’s gracious.

Stuck in a Long Line to Vote? It Could Be Worse.

If you’re stuck in a long voting line today — hungry, tired, feet aching— consider what some voters in the rural West had to endure to vote in the 1946 election.

First page of the article "What Some People Do to Vote"
Read “What Some People Do to Vote” from the November 2, 1946, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Become a subscriber to gain access to all of the issues of The Saturday Evening Post dating back to 1821.

The Short Attention Span of Voters

—“Back to the Yoke,” Editorial, December 30, 1905

The other day an elephant, attached to a traveling show, got away, rushed through the streets of a town, trumpeting, burst in the glass front of a saloon and penetrated to the billiard-room, scattering several hundred men in wild alarm. There its keeper caught up with it and handed it a lump of sugar. It ate the sugar, became calm at once, and returned quietly with him. How like some elections, when the people go on a rampage for freedom, get a lump of sugar from the boss, forget all about their longing to be free, and return docilely to the yoke!