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Republicans want to break up Maricopa County, Jim Crow-style

After Reconstruction, state legislatures manipulated more than 1,300 county borders. That helped Southern white supremacists suppress and erase the Black vote, my research finds.

- April 18, 2022

Voters in Arizona’s Maricopa County, about a third of whom are Latino, helped deliver Joe Biden a victory in the November 2020 presidential election. Arizona’s 11 electoral college votes had gone to Donald Trump in 2016; in 2020, they want to Biden. Afterward, Republican proponents of the “big lie” — the false idea that Biden won only through fraud — argued that Democratic counties such as Maricopa are hotbeds of political corruption. Now, Arizona Republicans are pushing a seemingly novel and innocuous political reform: Divide Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest, into four smaller counties.

Counties oversee the administration of presidential elections, and elect their own important officials such as sheriffs, school superintendents and election administrators. That makes them critical units of political organization. As The Washington Post reported, critics of the push to divide Maricopa County see this as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, which are administered at the county level. The new counties, Republicans must calculate, will either vote for Republicans legitimately, or be more likely to be run by election officials who will support attempts to paint future elections as fraudulent.

In my research, I’ve analyzed the history of county division during the Jim Crow era. There I’ve found that newly created counties, like those proposed in Arizona, were more likely to administer fraudulent elections. I also find that these new counties hurt Black voters and Black officeholders the most.

How I did my research

From 1865 to 1920, the period from the Civil War through the early 20th century, state legislatures created more than 300 counties and significantly adjusted the borders of 1,000 existing ones. This geographic manipulation happened during the same period that the federal government ceased enforcing Reconstruction, enabling the former Confederate states to abandon democratic elections and voting rights for African Americans. During this time, new counties were created to target Black voters and officeholders, helping the then-white-supremacist-aligned Democratic Party solidify control over the South and institute Jim Crow rule.

I used the Newberry Library’s online atlas of historical county boundaries, which has data on the historical boundaries of every county in the United States, to detect changes to county boundaries and track the emergence of new counties from 1865 through 1920. Of the roughly 1,500 total counties that existed as this period ends, about 300 were established in the South during the Jim Crow era. Then, using historical election and demographic data, I compared new counties created in the South and counties targeted for manipulation with other counties in the South to see whether they had been targeted for political or racial reasons. By comparing the demographics, turnout, and partisanship of newly created counties and the counties from which their land was taken, I can determine whether the geographic changes were made with racial and political factors in mind. I also looked at whether these changes benefited the party that controlled that state’s legislature.

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The party of Jim Crow changed county lines to disadvantage Black voters

Over the years leading up to and during Jim Crow in the South, I find that Democratic state legislatures disproportionately “packed’’ Black voters into new counties, thus reducing their voting power statewide by concentrating their electoral influence in fewer political units.

New counties had a much higher proportion of Black residents than the counties that were divided or adjusted to allow the new county to be created. While most counties in the South had only small concentrations of Black residents, making up from zero to roughly 20 percent, most new counties had between 20 and 75 percent Black residents — leaving the old counties disproportionately White.

Putting all of a minority group into a single county or district, which scholars of congressional gerrymandering call “packing,” served several purposes — just as it would in Arizona today. First, the new counties that are more likely to vote in line with the political goals of the state legislature — Democrats in the Jim Crow South, Republicans in contemporary Arizona — would elect more like-minded political officers and would certify election results favorable to the state legislature. Second, the new counties packed with non-White residents can be policed in ways that discourage voting or have the results manipulated for fraudulent outcomes.

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New counties were a hotbed of election fraud

As expected, when I examined the new counties created in the Jim Crow South, I found that the new counties voted in larger proportions for Democrats than you would expect based on their residents’ past voting behavior. Given the high Black population of the new counties, my analysis predicted that Democrats would win only a low proportion of the vote, from zero to 50 percent. Not only do Republican-supporting regions report huge support for Democrats (60 to 100 percent) after being moved into new counties, but they also do so at rates unlikely to be produced by legitimate elections.

Nevertheless, new counties voted almost entirely for Democrats. While having one party win 100 percent of the vote in a county is an obvious sign of fraud, so is winning just under 100 percent, pointing to a lack of legitimate political competition. That these results occurred in locations disproportionately inhabited by Black Americans and Republican voters signals that the counties were changed to make it easier to suppress Black voting and otherwise conduct severe political manipulation and fraud.

Over this half-century, Democratic state legislatures in the South oversaw hundreds of these county changes. Of the new counties drawn by Democratically controlled state legislatures, only about 8 percent saw a Republican win an election in the next electoral cycle. Further, when Black officeholders were moved into new counties, they lost their offices at a faster rate than Black officeholders who were not targeted by geographic manipulation.

Breaking up Maricopa County uses the Jim Crow playbook

The plan to divide Maricopa County is an old trick in the playbook of American anti-democratic movements. While the number of new counties created by state legislatures plummeted in the late 20th century, states still have the power to redraw their internal borders. As national political figures pressure states to provide illegitimate election returns, more and more state legislatures may consider creating new counties.

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Michael Greenberger (@m_greenberger) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on American political development and elections.