Discussion of election fraud, voter suppression and the effect of the Electoral College on a close race are in the news in the run-up to Nov. 6. But electoral dysfunction has always plagued our imperfect system. We speak with three eminent historians, also known as the American History Guys, about the factors that shaped elections past.


  • Peter Onuf Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia; author, " Nations, Markets, and War: Modern History and the American Civil War." Co-host, "Backstory with the American History Guys."
  • Brian Balogh Professor of History, University of Virginia; author, "A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America;" Co-host, "Backstory with the American History Guys."
  • Ed Ayers President, University of Richmond; author and editor of ten books, including the Bancroft Prize-winning "In the Presence of Mine Enemies; Co-host, "Backstory with the American History Guys."


  • 13:27:54

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn the run-up to the November 6 Presidential Election, debates about election fraud, voter suppression and the effect of the Electoral College on a close race are all over the news. Elections are the foundation of our democracy, but over the course of American history, electoral dysfunction of one sort or another has plagued our imperfect system. And over two plus centuries issues around who can vote and who does vote have, well, evolved. It's been a story of progress along with many reversals and setbacks.

  • 13:28:25

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss factors shaping elections past and present are three imminent historians also known as the American History Guys who are braving a historic storm to join us today. Peter Onuf is co-host of the radio show "Backstory With the American History Guys." He's the 18th century guy. He's a history professor at the University of Virginia and the author or editor of 11 books including most recently "Nations, Markets and War: Modern History and the American Civil War." Peter Onuf, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:28:57

    DR. PETER ONUFIt's great to be here, Kojo.

  • 13:28:59

    NNAMDIAlso joining us from the same studio in Charlottesville, Va. is Brian Balogh. He is the 20th century guy with "Backstory With the American History Guys." He's a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of "A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth Century America." Brian Balogh, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:19

    DR. BRIAN BALOGHDelighted to be here.

  • 13:29:22

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Richmond is Ed Ayers. He is the 19th century guy with "Backstory With the American History Guys." He's the president of the University of Richmond and author or editor of ten books including the Bancroft Prize-Winning "In the Presence of Mine Enemies." Ed Ayers, thank you for joining us. I can't hear Ed Ayers but presumably he can hear me. I'll start with you, Peter or Brian. First, has an epic storm as far as you know ever had a significant effect on an election?

  • 13:29:54

    ONUFWell, not in my period, Kojo, but Brian's got something for you.

  • 13:29:58

    BALOGHWell, perhaps.

  • 13:29:58

    NNAMDIWhat do you got?

  • 13:30:00

    BALOGHFirst, we've got to say, Kojo -- and this is relevant to what's going on today, we only care about these epic storms affecting elections when the elections are close to begin with. And so if you look back at the Presidential Election of 1916, the reelection of Woodrow Wilson, many people do feel that a snowstorm in California swung the election to Woodrow Wilson, that if it were not for that, you know, he might not have won the election. It suppressed voter turnout for his opposition Hughes.

  • 13:30:41

    BALOGHBut I'll have to say that we are going to have a very close election. It's relevant but, you know, whenever you have a close election there's a tendency to say, oh this did it, the labor vote did it, the African American vote did it, the weather did it. You know, close elections are, well, they're great for radio hosts. What can I say, Kojo?

  • 13:31:03

    ONUFYeah, well, listen, we had the solution...

  • 13:31:06

    NNAMDIThis is Peter, yes.

  • 13:31:08

    ONUF...in the 18th century, we just didn't have the elections on the same day so there was no possible weather catastrophe because sometimes it was months apart in some cases. And it was in the legislature. Sometimes it was popular vote.

  • 13:31:23

    BALOGHAnd then we can play the counter factual game. We can say, well you know if the weather hadn't been so good in Illinois in 1960 we -- you know, Nixon would've been president much sooner rather than John F. Kennedy. Or you can go back and say, well if the weather had been a little better in Florida, you know, we wouldn't have that Supreme Court Case about Al Gore. Al Gore would've been president. So whenever there's a really close election, the possibilities are endless right down to the weather.

  • 13:31:57

    NNAMDIEd Ayers, you have any stories about weather and elections?

  • 13:32:01

    MR. ED AYERSWell, can you hear me now?

  • 13:32:02

    NNAMDII can.

  • 13:32:02

    AYERSWell, that's good. A lot of time we spoke we couldn't. Well, I think that the weather I think about is the weather of a Civil War, that they try to have an election in the middle of all that and try to figure out how in the world you're supposed to keep the machinery going when you have everything torn up for years. And so I think it's actually one of the accomplishments of American democracy that they were able to sort of keep their act together and overcome that dislocation.

  • 13:32:31

    NNAMDIIn case these voices all sound familiar, it's because "Backstory With the American History Guys" is a radio program syndicated on Public Radio stations nationwide, including right here on WAMU 88.5 where it's heard on Sundays at 6:00 am. Brian, this storm is affecting early voting. A lot of places have closed early including D.C. Do you think this could have an impact?

  • 13:32:56

    BALOGHIt's hard to say. Certainly the important of early voting has grown in significance over the last ten, twelve years. It's just hard to say how it's going to cut. And of course that very term early voting means if it's early enough then people will be able to make up for it. On the other hand if voting locations are closed right up to the election, and why not during the election, then you know, we're into uncharted territory. I wouldn't begin to have any prescriptions from historical knowledge.

  • 13:33:32

    NNAMDIPeter, you guys did a civics quiz a while back , a little poll on the streets of downtown Charlottesville to find out just how much the average citizen understands about how their votes are counted in a presidential race. And you got some pretty amusing answers. No one was able to describe the Electoral College. Do you think that's fairly typical, Peter?

  • 13:33:55

    ONUFWell, I'm afraid it is, yeah. And it's not that we really understand it either, for that matter. There is a formula there about the number of electorates per state, as you know, senators plus representatives that's sort of fudging on the proportional representation system. And that's where a lot of the action is in the debate is that difference between the population proportional representation and the two-vote premium that little states get. I mean, I don't want to pick on Delaware. You've probably got some listeners out there, but three counties, two senators? Give me a break. They get one representative for those three counties. They've got the two senators.

  • 13:34:35

    BALOGHYeah, pick on South Dakota, Peter. I think they have the biggest proportional advantage. At least they did in 2000.

  • 13:34:42


  • 13:34:42


  • 13:34:43

    BALOGHAnd they don't listen to Kojo. I think he might extend to Delaware, I'm not sure.

  • 13:34:47

    ONUFWell, you know, Kojo, the thrust of Electoral College was to blunt popular election at first simply because technically it was impossible, and nobody could imagine such a thing as a national electorate. We're obsessed about the national electorate even though we keep track of the swing states and the Electoral College tallies. We none the less think that there's something truly deeply authentic and legitimate about getting more votes than the other guy.

  • 13:35:19

    ONUFThat just was the furthest thing from their mind. The only guy had any recognition at the first election would be of course George Washington. Everybody sort of knew him. Even Jefferson, my guy, his image didn't circulate a lot until the 1790s. So -- and pictures are important. They're worth a thousand words, especially when some of your electorates are close to illiterate.

  • 13:35:42

    ONUFSo just recognizing national figures and having national politics, that's not what they were thinking about. They wanted to get the right people filtered through the system who had the wisdom and experience and some national prestige (unintelligible).

  • 13:35:58

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you understand how the Electoral College works? 800-433-8850.

  • 13:36:08

    AYERSDon't ask me.

  • 13:36:09

    NNAMDIBrian, a lot of people believe that their vote does not count particularly if they're a county or district that's solidly in one camp or another. Can you explain why they might be wrong about that?

  • 13:36:19

    BALOGHI think they are wrong in an absolute sense. I mean, they think their vote doesn't count because so many of their kind of fellow -- so many people in the same state -- it's really not county to county for the Presidential Election unless you're in Nebraska and Maine. And we can get into that if you want to.

  • 13:36:41

    NNAMDIAnd because in most of the states whoever wins 51 percent of the vote in that state, because that's all of the electoral votes in that state...

  • 13:36:48

    BALOGHThat's right.

  • 13:36:48

    NNAMDI...people who feel that their state is either red or blue may not feel that their vote counts so much if they're on the other side.

  • 13:36:54

    BALOGHThat's right. So it's their fellow people in their state not their county. But the reason they feel that way is they feel they're taken for granted and they have the misfortune of not seeing wall-to-wall Romney or Obama ads for every time they turn on the television. Here's why their vote does count in my opinion. They need to get to that point of being taken for granted. And because they have expressed themselves for a particular candidate they can be counted on for that candidate. And that matters a lot. That base matters a lot.

  • 13:37:31

    BALOGHYou know when we get to the last ten days, three weeks of an election we all focus on the swing states. What really matters is how much the parties -- the candidates have accumulated a reliable base in those non-swing states. So I would say, yeah maybe on a given election it's not going to matter as much if you turn out or not because nine out of ten of your fellow states -- the people in your state will turn out and vote the same way. But over the long run it's the most crucial thing for Romney to be able to count on the Deep South for instance, and for Obama to be able to count on California.

  • 13:38:07

    NNAMDIEd Ayers -- go ahead, Peter.

  • 13:38:09

    ONUFSorry. I just wanted to put in a word for the framers of the Constitution. They got most of -- just about everything wrong in the Electoral College and it's easy to dump on them. But there's nothing in the Constitution about winner takes all in the Presidential Election. It could be by district as it was in many states in the first elections. And then you would have a more meaningful sense of participating in a winning majority. At least locally you could feel that your voice was being heard. So I think we ought to give them -- cut them some slack on this.

  • 13:38:40

    NNAMDIEd Ayers, you see the Electoral College as masking how divided we actually are. What do you mean by that?

  • 13:38:47

    AYERSWell, it's actually kind of what it was intended to do, as Pete was suggesting, back in the early days people worried so much about all the cabals and special deals and special groups and all that were going to sort of tear America apart. And what you really needed to do is find a stabilizing influence. Something that kind of covered over all of that and said no, no, no really, we're in much more agreement that you might think.

  • 13:39:12

    AYERSAnd so the very thing that we criticize Electoral College for I think is what it was meant to be, as sort of a flywheel for American democracy to give it a kind of stability that it might not have otherwise. We certainly saw this in the election of 2000 in which, you know, the hanging chads and so forth show just how perilous this was. But the Electoral College gave them, once those votes were cast, all of those votes to President Bush. And so therefore it looked as if he had more of a mandate than he did.

  • 13:39:41

    AYERSSo that's what I mean by that. It's actually doing what it's supposed to do, to take a very razor thin margin and turn it into something that looks more persuasive.

  • 13:39:51

    NNAMDIBrian, you say in 1960...

  • 13:39:52

    BALOGHThat and the Supreme Court decision.

  • 13:39:54

    AYERSYeah, I was going to leave that part out of that.

  • 13:39:56

    NNAMDIBrian, you say that 1969 was probably the closest we've ever come to amending the Constitution on the Electoral College. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:40:04

    BALOGHSure. Just to give a little context, there have been over 400 suggested amendments to amend the electoral college. That tells you that you are not alone in thinking this is a somewhat suspicious process. Founders aside, Peter.

  • 13:40:22


  • 13:40:22

    BALOGHBut in 1969 it actually got voted on in the House and the House approved it by more than two-thirds, which is what's needed to send it on to the state, and it got to the states, and it was also -- got out of committee in the Senate. What killed it is another historical practice for another of your shows, Kojo, the filibuster. And they simply couldn't get the votes to close the discussion as if I recall correctly, the people filibustering read all of the names of the all of the French Prime Ministers in the history of France, and many other very, very pertinent information.

  • 13:41:07

    BALOGHAnd so it fell a little bit short. But what's amazing is that Richard Nixon endorsed it. It had endorsement of interest groups from the League of Women Voters to...

  • 13:41:17

    NNAMDIIt didn't have any endorsements...

  • 13:41:18

    BALOGH...organized labor.

  • 13:41:19

    NNAMDIIt didn't have any endorsement from the south though, did it?

  • 13:41:21

    BALOGHNo. You got it exactly right. And if you look at -- you look at the regional breakdown, you know a lot of people say, well, you know, small states are never going to give up their advantage of those automatic two Senators that Peter referred to. But if you look at the regional breakdown, in fact it was a disproportionate number of Senators from the south who would not vote for cloture to end the filibuster, and it was very much Senators from the south like Senator Sam Ervin from North Carolina who were actually carrying on that filibuster to block sending this to the states. Now, whether it would have been approved in the states, that's another question.

  • 13:42:02

    NNAMDIPeter, there was a debate early on about what kind of system we would have. What other systems did the founders consider?

  • 13:42:09

    ONUFWell, Kojo, don't you know that all men are created unequal? That is the traditional idea of government. To be governed is that there are some who are made to rule and some who should just suck it up and shut up. And that's the conventional wisdom. In fact, think of the social order as the kind of hierarchy, chain of command. And even with a robust sense of your rights and English America, you would understand -- you would defer to those who were your betters.

  • 13:42:39

    ONUFSo when Jefferson makes this absurd claim and says we can base a whole system on the notion of citizen equality, that's truly revolutionary, and that's very upsetting to a lot of people who had been prominent in the old regime in colonial America. How can you possibly avoid anarchy? That's the great threat. We worry about polarization now, they worried about anarchy.

  • 13:43:03

    NNAMDIAnd apparently, Brian, you have been doing history for well, at least 30 years, but for the vast majority of our history the majority of adults you discovered have not been able to vote?

  • 13:43:17

    BALOGHWell, you know that. We have to go a little bit out of the 20the century to document that, but -- and I will -- I'm actually gonna flip this to Peter and Ed to take us through who could vote in the 18th century and the 19th century. Peter, start us off. I will pick up in the 20th century, and I got a lot to say too, so you better be -- better be quick.

  • 13:43:38

    ONUFWell, all right. All right. I'll make it really quick. I told you all men are created unequal and I'll also say this, Kojo. You can't participate if you don't have a stake in society. That is property ownership, and there are some people that were in, household heads, it's a pretty wide franchise in colonial America compared to Britain for instance, but it's not everybody. It's a small group and there are also racial exclusions early on.

  • 13:44:02

    ONUFThere's no idea that everybody who happens to be a resident with certain boundaries -- slaves -- is going to have a vote. So this is one of the things that we struggle with, the legacy of white man's democracy. That's what it was early on, and I emphasize man.

  • 13:44:19

    NNAMDIEd Ayers, who could vote in the 19th century?

  • 13:44:21

    AYERSYeah. Well, we had a great expansion and then a great contraction. Of course though the biggest change ever was really the 15th Amendment after the Civil War when African-Americans could vote, and suddenly the electorate radically expanded. But then, over the next 40 years, southern legislatures made sure that it contracted again. And so you would have gone from in 1890 starting the first convention, one after another they revised their entire constitutions to say no, it's not against black people, but it is against people who cannot read, people who don't own property, people who have moved around, people who didn't a poll tax and all those things.

  • 13:45:04

    AYERSSo over the next 20 years, the American electorate radically contracted, and just about the time that it finished contracting by losing all of those African-Americans, it radically expanded again with the 19th Amendment adding women. So your idea of the electorate being unconstant, Kojo, is exactly right. It's like an accordion. It's expanding and contracting.

  • 13:45:25

    ONUFWell, it sounds childbirth to me, Ed.

  • 13:45:29

    NNAMDIBrian, take us into the 20th century, and talk about who still wasn't voting at the turn of the century.

  • 13:45:36

    BALOGHWell, almost all the people that Ed was talking about still were not voting. The regime of Jim Crow that Ed was referring to in the south was alive and well really through the 1950s and 1960s and that meant especially in the deep south that it was almost impossible for African-Americans to register to vote. In fact, it was dangerous to their health and perhaps their lives to even try to register to vote. It was absolutely dangerous to their jobs and the jobs of their family members should they even try to register to vote let alone to vote.

  • 13:46:15

    BALOGHSo as late 1964 in a deep south state like Mississippi, you found that only seven percent of eligible African-Americans, eligible by age, were actually voting. Who else wasn't voting? Well, most women were not voting before the 19th Amendment which was ratified...

  • 13:46:40

    NNAMDIIn 1920, right?

  • 13:46:41

    BALOGH...and in place in 1920. So those are the first couple of decades of my century, the 20th century. Now, just to be clear, a lot of women had begun to vote in the states primarily in the west that had passed legislation on a statewide basis allowing women to vote. Sometimes they could only vote in, you know, city council elections or school board elections. Sometimes they could vote for Congress or even president, but a large number of women were excluded from voting.

  • 13:47:19

    NNAMDIGotta interrupt you because we've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with the American History Guys. They're giving us the Back Story. You can call us at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:51:53

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're getting the Back Story from the American History Guys. Back Story with the American History Guys is a radio broadcast syndicated on public radio stations nationwide including right here on WAMU 88.5 where it can be heard on Sundays at 6:00 a.m. We're talking with Peter Onuf. He's a history professor at the University of Virginia. He joins us from studios in Charlottesville along with Brian Balogh. He's a history professor at the University of Virginia also.

  • 13:52:20

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Ed Ayers. He is the president of the University of Richmond. Among them they have authored or editored about 30 books and they now join us for this conversation. Ed Ayers, voter turnout is an area which Americans compare unfavorably, or in which we compare unfavorably with much of the world. Just 57 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls in the last presidential election, but there were some high watermarks in America's past. Can you tell us a little bit about the 1880s?

  • 13:52:50

    AYERSI can. The golden age of American politics. I think if you stop people on the street as we did, and ask them about the electoral college, and asked them about hey, tell me the politics of the 1880s and 1890s, people would be pretty hard pressed to do this. But the paradox is, is that is when American voting turnout was at its all-time peak. Elections were settled by one a single percentage point for year after year.

  • 13:53:14

    AYERSYou had big army-like enterprises designed to get all the men. Now, one thing to remember, this is all men, out to the polls, huge parades, huge parties, kind of paramilitary. And so back then it seemed to matter enormously whether Democrat or Republican one even though we look back on it and say what in the world were they fighting over? The answer is the tariff which would be kind of like taxes today.

  • 13:53:39

    NNAMDIPeter, elections were at one time also part of a patronage system for a long time. How did that work?

  • 13:53:47

    ONUFWell, that's what incentivizes people to get into politics. You could say the first real political operatives in America were newspaper editors, a once-despised profession, because of course artisans work with their hands. They're not gentry types. But these printers were essential in building the first party system that is connecting voters to parties and also getting -- keeping voters interested between elections, and we have a lot of elections in America. That's important.

  • 13:54:19

    ONUFBut once you had printers involved, of course, printers need to eat, live just the way journalists and professors need to live, and how are they gonna do that? They're going to do it if they get printing contracts. So this is you might say the original sin of American politics is that to get the whole machine in operation you've got to have patronage. You've got to have deals, bread and butter, the loaves and fishes as we call them in Biblical terms.

  • 13:54:44

    NNAMDIBrian, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made be the single-most important protection of voter rights in our history, and it sill impacts states today, does it not?

  • 13:54:54

    BALOGHAbsolutely. I tell my students in my 20th century American history class that it's the most important piece of legislation in the 20th century. It goes beyond simply voting because of everything that -- allowing, and in fact ensuring African Americans the vote did for America. It still is in force in those places that had beneath a certain percentage of people turning out to vote. That's how the Justice Department measured whether there was something untoward and illegal after '65 going on.

  • 13:55:32

    BALOGHThose very things that Ed talked about, literacy tests, poll taxes, and what we haven't talked about Kojo, is what today we would call voter suppression which was the norm at the end of Ed's period, that is voter registration, restricted days that you could sign up to vote. This is all new. I blame it all on Ed Ayers and his century. And it's one of the reasons that the number of eligible voters declined so much.

  • 13:56:04

    BALOGHAll of these rules and regulations about who could vote. By the way, all flying under the banner of oh, we have to stamp out fraud, you know. But it always seemed like the fraud was being committed by poor people, by people of color in the north if they were allowed to vote, by ethnic groups. Nobody talked about the fraud of employers telling their workers that if they voted a certain way they would no longer have a job. You know, people seemed a little less worried about that kind of fraud.

  • 13:56:35

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Tom who said, "A few states, Maine and Colorado, have switched from winner take all to awarding their electoral votes proportionally to the popular vote or by the votes in each Congressional district. This makes these states perpetual swing states. Shouldn't all electoral votes be awarded the same way? How come the current non-standardized system meet the one-man, one-vote fairness test?" What do you say, Peter?

  • 13:56:58

    ONUFWow. Well, I think Tom wants to dismantle our federal system.

  • 13:57:04

    NNAMDII think he does.

  • 13:57:05

    ONUFI got to tell you, there's a lot of inertia there, and it's not going to happen in our lifetimes. I'm pretty old, so it could happen in Tom's lifetime, but I wouldn't look forward to it. And, uh, you know, there's the downside of district voting, or proportional voting, is then the state loses its clout, and it may not be a king maker.

  • 13:57:26

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have, but you can hear Back Story with the American History Guys right here on WAMU on Sundays at 6:00 a.m. Peter Onuf is co-host of the show. He's a history professor at the University of Virginia, and the author or editor of 11 books including most recently, "Nations, Markets, and War: Modern History and the American Civil War." Brian Balogh is a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of "A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in 19th Century America.

  • 13:57:57

    NNAMDIAnd Ed Ayers is the president of the University of Richmond and author or editor of ten books, including the Bancroft Prize-winning "In the Presence of Mine Enemies." Gentlemen, thank you all for joining us.

  • 13:58:09

    AYERSThank you so much.

  • 13:58:09

    BALOGHThanks very much, great time.

  • 13:58:10

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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