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There has been a lot of talk in the last few months about vote suppression. Both Democrats and Republicans are accusing the other of an action that, we can all agree, is reprehensible.
But vote suppression is nothing new. It has a long and (dis)honorable tradition reaching back to the founding of this country.
Indeed, our founding fathers were afraid of letting too many people vote. Unable to agree on who should exercise the franchise, they left the running of elections up to the states, putting into the Constitution only the provision (Article 1, Section 2) that members of the House of Representatives had to be chosen by the same people who also chose “the most numerous branch of the state legislature.” The Constitution has been amended four times to tell the states whom they cannot leave out (Amendments 15, 19, 24, and 26), but states often found ways around these prohibitions.
At no point does the Constitution, or any of its amendments, declare that voting is a right.
Oddly, the Constitution does not limit voting to citizens. States that wanted to attract immigrants could, and did, allow some of them to cast votes. Shaping the electorate – deciding who can vote for what – has always been a political decision in which practical concerns trumped ideological ones. Prior to passage of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, constitutional scholars agreed that the federal government could not interfere with a state’s right to determine who could vote. But the civil rights movement of the 1950s demanded a shift in that perspective. Activists argued that voting was a right, one that the federal government was bound to protect. Over time, those in the federal government, if not the Southern states, came to agree, which is why the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965.
The franchise has been expanded or contracted by political actors in the states, who have always tried to enhance or suppress the vote to give them a political advantage. New Jersey’s 1776 Constitution allowed single women and African-Americans to vote if they met the property and residency requirements. Enough of them voted that in 1807 the legislature, in a partisan move, restricted the vote to tax-paying, white, male citizens in an effort to influence the 1808 Presidential election. Other states acted similarly.
The most invidious efforts to suppress the vote were in the South. Former Confederate states spent over three decades trying out different methods to invalidate the 15th Amendment that gave male, African-American citizens the right to vote. Conservative Democrats started with threats and violence, then shifted to bribery, intimidation, and fraud in order to elect their supporters to governing bodies. By the 1890s, they had sufficient control of the state legislatures to write new state constitutions and pass laws that removed African-Americans from the voting rolls and effectively restricted the electorate to reliable, conservative Democratic voters. As South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman told northern audiences in 1901: “All men are not created equal and the `niggers’ are not fit to vote.”
Overtly aimed at eliminating blacks from the electorate, these measures also reduced the number of lower class white voters who had often voted for opposition political parties. For example, under the rubric of election reform, many states adopted the Australian ballot, a paper ballot printed by the state, listing all offices and candidates, to be marked in secret by the voter. True, the old system of voting in person, or putting tickets passed out by parties into a box, had led to extensive corruption: men were paid to vote early and often wherever their votes were needed.
But to mark a ballot, the voter had to read it. Adopted by eight Southern and 30 Northern states by 1900, in the South, the secret ballot was openly embraced as a legal means to purge the electorate of illiterates – poor voters, who had been denied an education, and who were most likely to oppose the conservative Democratic Party. In the Southern states in 1900 a majority of the black adult males were illiterate, as were about a seventh of the white adult males. Seven states had explicit literacy tests. Six required voter registration, and sometimes re-registration, many months before an election or referendum. Three states required that voters put different ballots into different boxes for different offices, and any ticket put into the wrong box was not counted.
In addition, by 1908 every former Confederate state, and several outside the south, had imposed a poll tax, which often had to be paid several months before an election, usually in the spring when farmers had little cash. The voter had to show a tax receipt to get a ballot. After the 19th Amendment was passed, poll taxes often kept women from voting, since poor families that could only afford to pay for one voter would give it to the male head of household.
Some states had lengthy residency requirements to eliminate transient sharecroppers. Every state listed disqualifying crimes, selecting those most likely to be committed by blacks. Bigamy and moonshining were disqualifying crimes; murder was not. Just in case these didn’t work, many states put discretion to determine whether one was qualified to vote into the hands of local registrars.
Altering voting districts, or gerrymandering, to limit competition between parties was another technique. Although most states required that legislative districts be redrawn every ten years, that was seldom done until the Supreme court required “one person, one vote” in the early 1960s. But that just led to more creative gerrymandering – a term first used in an 1812 Massachusetts cartoon after Governor Elbridge Gerry created a district in the shape of a salamander (a “Gerry-Mander”) to benefit his Democratic-Republican party.
While creatively drawn districts don’t necessarily suppress the vote, they can make opposition meaningless. For example, Alabama has seven Congressional districts: one is represented by a black, female Democrat and the other six by white Republicans. African-Americans are roughly one-third of Alabama’s population and they vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
In short, vote suppression is nothing new. A free and fair vote requires eternal vigilance.
Jo Freeman has published eleven books. She is almost done with her twelfth,Tell it Like It Is: Living History in the Southern Civil Rights Movement 1965-66. Copyright © 2020 by Jo Freeman.