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Protecting the right to vote

Op-Ed

History demonstrates that any effort to deny citizens the ability to vote can't be ignored.

September 28, 2012|By J. Morgan Kousser
  • A line of African American voters, over two blocks long, await their chance to vote on July 17, 1946, in Georgia's primary.
A line of African American voters, over two blocks long, await their chance… (Associated Press )

Since their historic victories in the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans across the country have passed an array of voting laws — to require photo identification, to make it more difficult to register, to reduce periods of early voting or to purge voter rolls — and they are considering others. The Justice Department, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have challenged many of these laws in court. A federal court recently rejected Texas' voter ID law, and similar cases from Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wisconsin await final judicial action.

Sound-bite analogies between these new laws and the fully mature Jim Crow system have been properly condemned as simplistic and misleading. But more careful study of the experience of a century ago may offer a cautionary lesson about today's changes in election laws.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Southern Democrats used statutory and state constitutional restrictions — as well as violence, intimidation and ballot-box stuffing — to discourage and, ultimately, to disfranchise many poor whites and the vast majority of African Americans. Several popular misunderstandings about that "first disfranchisement" cloud the public's view of recent legislation.

One is that many people believe it was violence, not laws, that disfranchised African Americans, and that few Southern blacks continued to vote after the Compromise of 1877, which resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the collapse of the last Reconstruction Republican state governments.

But, in fact, large proportions of African Americans somehow managed to vote in the next election in two-thirds of the counties where the most horrific Reconstruction violence took place. Black turnout in the South in the 1880s was actually higher than it often is today, and many African Americans

continued to win elections for local and state offices and Congress through the 1890s.

Disfranchisement was accomplished by law, not by force.

Many people assume, again incorrectly, that the restrictive devices of the earlier period were aimed exclusively at African Americans. But literacy and property qualifications applied to whites as well as blacks, at least in law. Poll taxes discouraged many poor whites from voting, especially women after ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. White as well as African American turnout dropped dramatically after the passage of major disfranchisement statutes and state constitutional amendments.

Many scholars for a long time ignored the partisan aspects of disfranchisement. In every Southern state, Democrats, then the party of white and upper-class supremacy, pushed through disfranchisement measures in legislatures and by referendums, often using violence and ballot-box stuffing to secure the results. Most Populists and Republicans opposed these laws to protect both their white and black fellow party members. If blacks had been Democrats, there would have been no need for Democratic leaders to disfranchise them. The partisan and racial motives of the first disfranchisement cannot be neatly disentangled.

Some scholars also have failed to notice that disfranchisement was an incremental process, taking place over many years and involving many types of actions. First, violence and intimidation, most intense during the 1860s and 1870s, killed or ran off many Republican leaders and gave Democrats control of election boards. Then Democratic election officials perpetrated the largest election frauds in U.S. history, which reduced the number of their political opponents but did not eliminate them.

With majorities in state legislatures, Democrats passed changes in statutes that included gerrymandering election districts, substituting at-large for district elections in majority-white areas to deny opponents any offices at all, making it much more difficult to register to vote, or mandating secret ballots to disfranchise the illiterate.

Finally, by the 1890s and early 1900s, with the electorate and the number of partisan opposition

officials reduced, with the ability

to falsify election returns and with the option to use violence if needed, Democrats were able to move on to state constitutional disfranchisement with literacy tests and especially poll taxes.

In sum, the first disfranchisement was accomplished and perpetuated by law; it was aimed primarily but not exclusively at African Americans; it was partisan as well as racial; and it took place step by step.

It is difficult to assess the effects of the current spate of laws immediately, because of other factors. For example, minorities surged to the polls in 2008 to back the first nonwhite major-party nominee for the presidency. That offset the potential negative effect on turnout from strengthened voter ID laws.

Some leaders of the 19th century Republican Party — the activist liberal party of the day — thought they could relax after they had abolished slavery and written equal protection and equal voting rights into the Constitution. "Revolutions," they intoned, "do not go backward."

After the almost unanimous renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008, many in the media and the public echoed the optimism of the 19th century about racial change. But while no one expects the reestablishment of slavery or explicit segregation or total disfranchisement, careful study of that earlier experience suggests that we should beware even small steps toward counter-revolution. Today's voter ID and other such laws bear an eerie resemblance to the initial legal stages of the first disfranchisement.

J. Morgan Kousser is the author of "The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910."

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