The most important power an individual citizen possesses is the franchise; the right to vote. So, it should come as no surprise that white people with political power have, historically, actively worked at suppressing the African-American (as well as other “minority”/marginalized populations) vote. The simple, straightforward facts regarding voting are these: the 15th Amendment ("the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.") and the 19th Amendment (“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”). Those Amendments, on the surface, give the right to vote to former (male) African-American slaves and to women. As we know, though, what we see on the surface is often not the reality --- the old de facto (reality)v. de jure (the law) conflict.
Before looking at those Amendments and the de facto applications, we need to remember that African-Americans were, indeed, part of the voting landscape in the original drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The infamous 3/5th’s Compromise, where Southern states were allowed to count their slaves as part of their representative population, did in fact “count” African-Americans but did not allow them to vote. This, of course, granted the Southern, slave-owning states with higher rates of representation than their voting population and, most importantly, granted them more Presidential Electors than they should have! After the Civil War and the passage of the 15th Amendment, Southerners had to become more “creative” in denying Blacks the vote and, once the Union troops were withdrawn in 1877, they proved themselves up to the challenge.
As noted by Louis Menand in the New Yorker (February 4, 2019):
By 1896, though, the endgame was clearly in view. Six years earlier, Mississippi had become the first state to contrive laws to disenfranchise black voters, rather than rely solely on terror and fraud. Other states followed, although extralegal methods remained in use, and, by the end of the century, the work of disenfranchisement was complete. There were 130,334 African-Americans registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896; in 1904, there were 1,342. In Virginia that year, the estimated black turnout in the Presidential election was zero.
Through poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, White Southern politicians slowly but surely eliminated Black voting in the South. (And, yes, this was the work of the Democratic Party but let’s be clear --- that Democratic Party died in 1964/1965 when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act --- and told his press aide, Bill Moyers, ''I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.'' --- In fact, Southern Democrats had previously become “Dixiecrats” back in 1948, reacting to President Truman’s integrating the Armed Forces and Federal Agencies. Those same Southern Democrats and “Dixiecrats” became Republicans as a result of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968, when he very intentionally used racist dog whistles to bring the former Democrats into the Republican fold --- a position the party has maintained to this day.) Ironically, by suppressing the Black vote, Southerners improved upon the original 3/5th’s Compromise. Again, as Menand notes:
As many historians have pointed out, one of the reasons the South was able to exercise a stranglehold on race relations in national politics was the supervention of the famous three-fifths clause, once the focus of abolitionist attacks on the Constitution. When the former slaves were counted as full persons, the former slave states gained twenty congressional seats, a twenty-five-per-cent bump. They also gained votes in the Electoral College. They suppressed the votes of their African-American residents, then got full representational credit for them.
For Southerners this was a “win-win” (more voting power for Whites and more representation and Electors) and it was a system that was maintained until 1965’s Voting Rights Act. Some simple statistics support the shift: “In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among blacks increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969.” (Politico, August 2017) Other evidence:
Nearly 250,000 African Americans registered in 1965, one-third of whom were registered by federal examiners. In covered jurisdictions, less than one-third (29.3%) of the African American population was registered in 1965; by 1967, this number increased to more than half (52.1%), and a majority of African American residents became registered to vote in 9 of the 13 Southern states. (wiki)
This sea change sent the (former Southern Democrats/Dixiecrats) Republicans back to the drawing board to devise new ways to suppress “minority” voting. And, over time, they proved extremely creative --- and even effective --- until the Supreme Court, in the 2013 Shelby case essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Shelby case determined that the “formula” for requiring federal oversight of elections in 15 states (the “Deep South” states but also places like North Dakota, Wisconsin, Arizona and New York!) where there had been systemic, historic voting suppression no longer needed to be applied as it was an “old formula” and “no longer responsive to current needs.” (wiki) This unleashed years of pent up hostility from many of the states in question, leading to a series of strategies designed to suppress African American voters. Here is a summary of what has occurred since the Shelby decision:
In 2013, discriminatory voter ID laws arose following the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which some argue amount to voter suppression among African-Americans.
Since then, federal judges have overturned voting restrictions in several states on the grounds that they were intentionally discriminatory. In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers requested data on various voting practices, broken down by race. They then passed laws that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans. Among other things, they cut back on early voting. Later, the North Carolina GOP sent out a press release celebrating the decline in early voting by African Americans.
In Texas, a voter ID law requiring a driver's license, passport, military identification, or gun permit, was repeatedly found to be intentionally discriminatory. The state's election laws could be put back under the control of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, however, the DOJ has expressed support for Texas's ID law. Sessions was accused by Coretta Scott King in 1986 of trying to suppress the black vote. A similar ID law in North Dakota, which would have disenfranchised large numbers of Native Americans, was also overturned.
In Wisconsin, a federal judge found that the state's restrictive voter ID law led to "real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities"; and, given that there was no evidence of widespread voter impersonation in Wisconsin, found that the law was "a cure worse than the disease." In addition to imposing strict voter ID requirements, the law cut back on early voting, required people to live in a ward for at least 28 days before voting, and prohibited emailing absentee ballots to voters.
Other controversial measures include shutting down Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices in minority neighborhoods, making it more difficult for residents to obtain voter IDs; shutting down polling places in minority neighborhoods; systematically depriving precincts in minority neighborhoods of the resources they need to operate efficiently, such as poll workers and voting machines; and purging voters from the rolls shortly before an election.
Often, voter fraud is cited as a justification for such laws even when the incidence of voter fraud is low. In Iowa, lawmakers passed a strict voter ID law with the potential to disenfranchise 260,000 voters. Out of 1.6 million votes cast in Iowa in 2016, there were only 10 allegations of voter fraud; none were cases of impersonation that a voter ID law could have prevented. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, the architect of the bill, admitted, "We've not experienced widespread voter fraud in Iowa. (wiki)
Cutting back on early voting, implementing strict voter ID laws, eliminating early voting, making claims of “voter fraud,” purging voter rolls, and, of course gerrymandering --- which a Federal court found to be done with “surgical precision” to eliminate African-American (Democratic) voters – have all become common Republican strategies in recent years. As Jamelle Bouie noted in a recent New York Times: “If racism is principally a problem of power and resources then our political culture ought to expand the offenses that earn the kind of swift condemnation we’ve seen over the last few days (Northam/Fairfax). Voter suppression and the lawmakers who back it deserve the same contempt we save for open racial bigotry.” The new Democratic House of Representatives has brought forth its first bill --- H.R. 1 --- which is clearly aimed at rectifying the Shelby decision.
According to Jelani Cobb in the February 18/25 issue of The New Yorker:
“The bill contains provisions to insure access to paper ballots, in order to verify the accuracy of voting results; to establish early voting in all states for federal elections and to launch independent redistricting commissions to address the problem of partisan gerrymandering . . . H.R. 1 could spur the creation of a new formula for determining which states should be subject to new federal oversight. It might, for example, be possible to take into account recent voter-suppression efforts in Ohio, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and other states.” It also called for making Election Day a Federal Holiday, so that workers wouldn’t have to worry about having to vote on a “work day.” The Republican response to this bill was predictable. Mitch McConnell declared H.R. 1 was a “power grab” and said, “Just what America needs --- another paid holiday,” predicting workers would not only take the day off but would work for Democratic candidates. At this point, the Republicans don’t even try to conceal their intentions, carrying on an age-old tradition of promoting white supremacy at the expense of African American rights.
Stay tuned as court cases ensue, elections are held, and people continue to fight for their most basic right in a democratic society; the vote.