Learning How to Discriminate: The Block Vote at Reconstruction

Sarah John, Don DeBats, Morgan Tompkins

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The Block Vote, a non-proportional multi-winner system that is often called “at-large” voting in that multiple candidates are elected as a group for the whole of a political unit rather than as a single candidate for each of districts comprising the unit. It is a form of voting with a checkered history in the United States. One of the most commonly used voting systems throughout U.S. history, it was used against African-Americans to limit the impact of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In response, courts and Congress established single-member districts as the standard for ensuring representation of racial and ethnic minorities, including through majority minority districts. Under block voting, a plurality of voters that votes as a block can elect all candidates to all positions up for election, denying the minority any representation. While these characteristics became well known by the end of the Jim Crow era, earlier experience with the Block Vote, which was the prevailing voting system for boards and councils in many Southern communities at the time the 15th Amendment became law, is largely unexplored. The paper explores that early experience between April 1870—the first election in which African-American men could vote—and 1880 in a small town in Todd County, Kentucky. Using individual-level data from poll books, which list each individual voter and the candidates for whom they voted, and matching it with other official records, we uncover the in the context of Block Vote elections versus single-member and referenda elections of the time.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 2019
EventMidwest Political Science Association Conference - Chicago, United States
Duration: 4 Apr 20197 Apr 2019


ConferenceMidwest Political Science Association Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States


  • Block vote
  • 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • Voting
  • United States of America


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