On March 23, 1900, Sen. Benjamin R. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman of South Carolina, a former S.C. governor as well, took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to defend his state, which had taken the ballot away from Black voters in 1895. He reduced the issue to its simplest terms: “In my State there were 135,000 negro voters, or negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters. Now, I want to ask you, with a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000? How are you going to do it?”
He commenced to tell his Senate colleagues how.
“We had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberated, and avowedly with the purpose of disenfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.”
President Donald Trump is faced with the same arithmetical challenge that confronted Pitchfork Ben and South Carolina back in the day.
If a “free vote and fair count” are allowed to take place in the 2020 presidential election, opinion polls indicate that the votes opposed to Trump’s reelection are likely to significantly outnumber votes for keeping him in office.
Trump has had a taste of that. In the 2016 presidential race, the popular-vote winner was Hillary Clinton, who whipped him by nearly 3 million votes. The electoral college, not a majority of American voters, put Trump in the White House. He knows that, too.
Trump, who, like Pitchfork Ben, has little use for Blacks and other people of color, must find a way to reduce the number of anti-Trump voters who can actually cast a ballot.
He is getting help from Republicans around the country who are resorting to voter-suppression tactics that have served them well in recent years, such as voter purges and restrictive ID laws.
Now he is out to help himself by disenfranchising as many anti-Trump voters as he can.
The weapon in Jim Crow South Carolina was the constitutional convention. Trump’s is the bully pulpit, where he can attack and discredit mail-in balloting, a voting method favored by Democrats during the coronavirus pandemic. He is also using the powers of his office to hamstring the U.S. Postal Service, which is indispensable to making the mail-in balloting system work.
Trump is trying to achieve both, with public opposition to any plan that includes resources in a new coronavirus relief bill to strengthen the Postal Service and aid states that administer and protect the integrity of elections.
Trump claims over and over, but with no evidence to prove it, that mailed ballots would be “fraudulent.”
His real fear, however, is an election that facilitates more ballots to be cast and counted. That would — just as Pitchfork Ben feared Black voters would outweigh White South Carolinians — “LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY,” as Trump exclaimed in a tweet. As well as to his own political career, I might add.
Democratic Georgia congressman John Lewis, in a speech in Charlotte eight years ago, denounced what Pitchfork Ben had praised and Trump is trying to copy: ways to make it hard for people to cast a vote. That is not in keeping with the democratic process, Lewis said.
As you, in your own way, contend with Trump’s attempts at voter suppression, think of Lewis’s words from the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which should be committed to memory: “My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.” Don’t ever forget that.
Pitchfork Ben and the Old South pulled off disenfranchisement for decades before enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Will this country let Trump get away with pulling it off this year?
Colbert I. “Colby” King is a former Washington Post deputy editorial page editor.