On Election Day, 1888, approximately one hour after the last vote was cast, four masked men burst into a polling place in Plumerville, Arkansas. Waving pistols and shouting threats, they forced election officials against a wall, seized the ballot box, and disappeared on horseback into the rainy night.
There was nothing random about the heist. Plumerville was a Republican stronghold, a mostly Black town in a mostly white county. The gunmen, all white, were prominent local Democrats, including a deputy sheriff. According to later court testimony, after taking the ballot box, the robbers rode to the nearby Democratic stronghold of Morrilton and burned their prize in a woodstove. When ballots were finally counted, Plumerville’s were not among them. Not long after, the Democratic candidate was declared the winner of Arkansas’s Second Congressional District—which included Plumerville—by just two-tenths of a percent.
A tale of pistol-wielding, horseback-riding outlaws may sound antique. Yet today, American elections are if anything even more imperiled than they were 132 years ago. In the past few weeks alone, President Donald Trump has admitted to sabotaging the Postal Service in an attempt to prevent absentee votes from being counted; explored executive orders to further curb mail-in voting; talked about changing the date of the election; and sent federal forces into cities and states on the flimsy pretense of protecting federal property. “Protecting” federal elections could be next.