The Exclusionary History of Voter Registration Dates to 1800

The Exclusionary History of Voter Registration Dates to 1800


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When George Washington was elected as the first U.S. president in 1789, he won with a landslide, securing 69 out of 69 available electoral votes. But only a very limited part of the population had actually voted since white property owners were the only group of Americans allowed to participate in the election.

Some of the founding fathers wanted to keep it that way. John Adams warned in a 1776 letter that expanding voting rights to other parts of the population was a “dangerous” idea. “New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State,” he wrote.

Despite Adams’ misgivings, voting rights did eventually broaden—by 1856, property ownership was no longer a factor, in 1870 African Americans secured the right to vote, followed by women in 1920 and Native Americans in 1924. But a system of state-run voter registration, first established in Massachusetts in 1800, has often proven to be more of a roadblock to would-be voters than an invitation to participate in democracy.

“In some places, voter registration was designed to hinder political machines and to make it harder for people to register and to vote,” says Alex Keysarr, a historian at Harvard University and author of the book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. “After some early quarrels, the machines generally learned how to cope with new registration rules and made sure that their people were registered and voting. But many immigrant workers, and, of course, African Americans elsewhere, were prevented from voting.”

The efforts in various states to create voter registration systems did have the stated purpose of bringing, as Keysarr says, “honest, fair, and uncorrupted elections” that voters did benefit from. But voter registration also became a battleground across the nation with vying political factions manipulating the execution of these laws to favor votes for their side.

Voter registration was set up to prevent fraud, but sometimes created it.

Throughout the states, voter registries were stalled in legislation in the decades following the creation of the Massachusetts system. Some New England states followed suit, but most did nothing until mass efforts in the north after 1860 made registries seem required. When the systems were eventually developed, they were mostly confined to large cities.

Pennsylvania’s 1836 voter registration laws in Philadelphia show how some voter registries ended up limiting voters, Keysarr writes. Opponents charged that voter registration created more fraud than it prevented and was intentionally designed to cut down the number of voters in the city, handing control of state legislation to rural voters. It wasn’t uncommon for Philadelphia voters to show up at the polls only to find their names removed from the official documents. When an attempt was made to make registration statewide, it was easily defeated.

Urban growth and immigration following the American Civil War spurred the establishment of more voter registrations, but some charge the drive had more to do with black Americans moving north and the desire to suppress their political voice.

Wherever voter registrations were put in place, sneaky attempts to control whose names got on the voter rolls followed. Registration during this post-Civil War era was mostly accomplished by going door to door so it wasn’t hard to avoid registering poor citizens and others deemed undesirable by corrupt political parties. And the systems were rife with fraud that allowed for fake registration.

Because of the political battles meant to fix corruption, registration laws were typically in constant flux and voters found it difficult to keep track of how and when to register.

Registration laws could be comically restrictive.

Some efforts to limit registration were comically restrictive, Keysarr writes. For example, that in 1885, Ohio allowed voters to register on only seven select days during the year until a court overturned the law.

An 1867 New Jersey law stipulated that registration was only allowed on the Thursday before election and anyone was permitted to dispute a registrant. In neighboring New York City in 1908, voter registration was held on the Jewish Sabbath and during Yom Kippur as a way of keeping Jews, many of whom were Socialists, away from the polls.

Since corruption continued to be a concern, states turned to the idea of having a central, unaffiliated statewide authority oversee elections. In 1913, Nebraska created a permanent registry with an election commissioner that would become the standard model, based on Boston and Chicago efforts.

By World War I, most states had voter registration laws, but the controversies never went away. In 1920, the 14th Amendment allowed states to decide what crimes would allow the loss of voting rights, which, Keysarr says, has been used to purge large segments of the population (mostly black) from the rolls. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented black Americans from exercising their right to vote.

Keysarr estimates that while registration laws have cut down on fraud, they’ve also dissuaded millions of voters from exercising their right.

“Any voter registration system is dealing with trade-offs between preventing fraud and making the ballot box accessible,” Keysarr says. “The devil was and is in the details, as we are seeing now in Georgia, North Dakota, and elsewhere. A lot of the current controversies have features similar to those in the North and the South in the 1890s.”


America's shameful history of voter suppression

When Kris Kobach was first running for office in Kansas in 2010, he claimed he’d found evidence that thousands of Kansans were assuming the identities of dead voters and casting fraudulent ballots – a technique once known as ghost voting.

Kobach even offered a name, Albert K Brewer of Wichita, who he said had voted from beyond the grave in the primaries that year.

But then it emerged that Albert K Brewer, aged 78, was still very much alive, a registered Republican like Kobach, and more than a little stunned to be told he’d moved on to the great hereafter. No evidence emerged that anyone had ghost voted in Kansas that year.

Seven years on, as Donald Trump’s point man on reforming the US electoral system, Kobach has not backed away from those same scare tactics – no matter that he is frequently called a fraud and a liar, and his allegations entirely baseless.

On the contrary. Backed by a president who, days after assuming office, claimed that 3 to 5 million fraudulent ballots had been cast for Hillary Clinton, Kobach is enthusiastically spreading stories of voter impersonation on a massive scale, of out-of-state students voting twice, and of non-citizens casting illegal ballots.

As vice-chair of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, his mission to root out “fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting” is sending chills down the spines of election experts and voting rights activists who believe he is intent on instituting a sweeping wave of new voter suppression laws.

Kris Kobach, vice-chair of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, at Trump International Golf Course. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Vanita Gupta, who headed the justice department’s civil rights division under President Obama, calls the commission “a pretext … to kick millions of eligible voters off the rolls and undermine the sanctity of our election systems”. Already in conjunction with a commission hearing in New Hampshire on Tuesday, a Kobach ally proposed instituting a system of background checks on voters as strict as the checks liberal groups want to impose on gun buyers.

Kobach did not respond to an interview request from the Guardian.

While it may seem astonishing to see such tactics being deployed in the world’s most powerful democracy, they cannot be attributed solely to the rise of Trump. In truth, the politics of electoral combat have been heating towards boiling point for a decade and a half – and are the product of a political system that has never, in more than two centuries, resolved basic questions of democratic accountability and is thus unique in the developed western world.

The 2000 presidential election, and in particular the bruising 36-day fight over Florida’s votes, exposed flaws in the US electoral system that many Americans had not thought about since the end of segregation and the landmark achievements of the civil rights era.

Not only was there a problem of reliability with the voting machines, it also became clear that the United States had never established an unequivocal right to vote had never established an apolitical, professional class of election managers and had no proper central electoral commission to set standards and lay down basic rules for everyone to follow, free of political interference.

In Mississippi, two African American men vote for the first time in the 1946 Democratic primary. Many southern states have persisted with Jim Crow-era laws the disproportionately impact black voters. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

In the absence of such a body, every jurisdiction was free to play fast and loose with the rules on everything from voter eligibility to whether or not to conduct recounts.

“All these different systems in different counties with no accountability … it’s like the poorest village in Africa,” the chair of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission, Brigalia Bam, later exclaimed on a follow-up tour of Florida on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.

Much of that dysfunction harks back to the country’s shameful racial history. To circumvent constitutional amendments passed in the wake of the civil war, southern states approved a slew of discriminatory laws and introduced literacy tests and good character tests (also adopted in parts of the north) that made it next to impossible for black voters to cast their ballots. James Vardaman, the despotic governor of Mississippi, admitted in 1890 that his state’s new constitution had “no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics”.

Even after segregation and Jim Crow voting laws came to a formal end in the south, modern politicians remained susceptible to the temptations of racist dog-whistles as a way of mustering the support of white voters and justifying the restriction of minority voting rights. Many southern states, for example, have persisted with segregation-era laws banning felons and ex-felons from voting – a restriction that disenfranchised an estimated 6 million voters in 2016, a vastly disproportionate number of them black men.

The Republicans have been especially prone to such corruptions because they are now the natural ruling party in the south, and they have resorted to a similar playbook to the segregation-era Democrats: stoking resentment of northern elites and harking back to the “lost cause” of the civil war. They have also become increasingly insecure about their ability to win national elections. Demographic shifts have eroded their overwhelmingly white base of support, and they have so far resisted repeated entreaties from party elders to broaden that support by moderating their policy positions.

In many states – notably North Carolina and Texas – they have exploited their majority in the state legislature to gerrymander congressional districts to their advantage. While both parties gerrymander, it has become surprisingly common for the Republican party to win fewer votes than the Democrats and still come out ahead in the House or Senate or both.

After the fight over the 2000 presidential race, the GOP’s response was not to sigh with relief that George W Bush squeaked into the White House, but rather to cry foul about African American voters being allowed to stay in line beyond the official poll closing time in St Louis, and to initiate a long, vicious publicity drive to insinuate that voter registration efforts in poor inner city neighborhoods were in fact corrupt enterprises to stuff voter rolls and ballot boxes on behalf of the Democrats.

Often, Republicans seemed to be evoking the era of New York’s Boss Tweed, when voting numbers were routinely padded by repeat voters, out-of-towners, foreigners, and phantom voters who were in reality pets, fictional characters, or stone-cold dead. Such practices, however, were sharply curtailed after the introduction of the secret ballot in the late 19th century, and ceased to be a factor of any significance after the last of the corrupt big city machines was brought to heel and reformed in the 1970s and 1980s. Voter impersonation – of the type Trump has invoked – is not a significant factor, and study after study has shown that while individual voter fraud does occasionally occur, it is rarer than being struck by lightning.

The specter of voter fraud was often invoked in the segregation era as an excuse to crack down on the rights of blacks and poor whites, and so it has proved in this century.

At the Martin Luther King Library in Washington, voters wait in line to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, there was an epidemic of racially coded appeals to the electorate’s worst instincts, including insinuations that Obama was not born in the United States and that busloads of illegal immigrants had poured over the Mexican border to seal his victory at the ballot box.

Party strategists, meanwhile, understood that to halt the pro-Obama momentum they had to stop minority voters and students from voting in such large numbers.


Genealogy 101: Voting Records

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips on how to use voter registration records to fill in details on your family tree. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Getting ready to vote today? Your ancestor may also have voted and left behind information that can help you in your family tree quest. As we trace our family history, we seek out records that not only link children to parents but also put our ancestors in a specific time and place. Decennial census records do this by providing information about our ancestors at 10-year intervals. Other resources like city directories document our ancestors’ locations more frequently.

Voter registrations are another type of “names list” that, like the census or city directory, provide researchers with their ancestor’s location at a specific time. These records are valuable to family historians because they provide a date, name, and residence for our ancestors. Voter registrations don’t record every ancestor, but when appropriate these records should be used in our research.

Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 25 October 1930, page 1

The first voter registration law was enacted in 1800 in Massachusetts. As you can imagine, voter registration laws – like vital record registration – took some time to be enacted throughout the country. It wasn’t until 1900 that the last of the western and southern states had voter registration laws. (1) That’s not to say that Americans weren’t voting prior to 1900, it just means that official voting register lists may not exist before then. (2)

Not Everyone Could Vote

There are many reasons why people either did not vote or were disenfranchised throughout history – but suffice it to say that in the early years of America, most rules stipulated that only white land-owning men could vote. For example, property qualifications for voting continued in “Virginia until 1851 Louisiana and Connecticut until 1845 North Carolina 1857.” (3) These types of voting restrictions ensured that only white men of some wealth, at least wealthy in land, could vote.

So, just as in any research, make sure to read about voting in the place your ancestors lived for their time period. That history might help you better understand why an ancestor is not appearing in available voting records.

Information Found on Voter Registrations

Depending on the time period and the location, voting registers can range from having just a name and address to more detailed information that provides rich genealogical facts. One example can be found in the Adams County, Washington, voting registers for 1880-1910 found on FamilySearch. (4) These registers include the voter’s name, age, occupation, place of birth, time of residence, place and date of naturalization, date of declaration of intention, and signature.

Where to Find Voter Records

Start your search for voting records with FamilySearch. In the FamilySearch Catalog, search by Place and Keyword to find voting records for the place your ancestors lived. A Catalog Place search for the county and/or state of interest can also be done. In the results list, look for the subject category “voting registers.”

A search on the worldwide library catalog WorldCat for the name of the place you’re researching and the words “voting register” can also help you find transcriptions of voting records. Other places to search include state or county historical societies, or a state archive. In some cases, early voting registers may not be extant and the information lost forever.


Voting Rights Throughout United States History

Voting rights in the United States have not always been equally accessible. African Americans and women of all ethnicities have fought, and continue to fight, especially hard to have their voices heard.

Voter Registration Drive at the 1973 Black Expo

Voting largely left out nonwhite men and women, regardless of color, for much of American history. This voter registration drive at the Black Expo in Chicago, Illinois, took place in 1973, just eight years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.

Photograph from John White/U.S. National Archives/Alamy Images

The rules for voting in the United States have changed over the years. While states have always determined requirements for voting throughout American history, the federal government has taken several actions that have changed those requirements. This is the result of many people campaigning for decades to make the voting process more just and equal.

Today, in order to vote people must be U.S. citizens, be 18 years of age or older, and be residents of the state in which they vote. However, this was not always the case.

Voting After The American Revolution

Following the American Revolution, the new country transitioned from being under British rule to developing its own government. After trying and failing to use the Articles of Confederation, the country adopted the U.S. Constitution in 1787. According to Article 1 of the Constitution, the requirements for federal elections were handled at a state level. The right to suffrage, or the power to vote, was granted exclusively to white men who owned land. Because the country was so young, the founders believed these men's economic ties to the country were a valuable trait.

In the early 1800s, some men supported allowing more people to vote. Following a period without political parties or choices for voters, the country returned to a two-party political system in the 1820s. There was also new interest in suffrage. White men continued to move west seeking available land, but many did not feel that property ownership should be required to vote. Many states removed that requirement, opening the door to voting for all white men.

Voting After The Civil War

While the country celebrated expanded voting rights for white men of all economic levels, voting still left out many people. Women and black Americans were still unable to vote. After the American Civil War in the 1860s, the Radical Republicans controlled Congress. These men were primarily white Northerners who wanted to restrict the power of the South.

As a result of the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, many free black Americans lived in the South as well as in the North. Radical Republicans saw this as a way to help their own cause and to extend voting rights to newly free black men. In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. It said that 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."

While the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote, it did not address citizenship. The 14th Amendment of 1869 classified anyone born in the United States as a citizen and granted those citizens equal protection. This amendment became the basis for citizenship. The Indian Citizen Act of 1924 allowed indigenous Americans to vote, but did not enforce the right. It took another 40 years for all U.S. states to grant full suffrage to indigenous Americans.

Discrimination In Voting Continued

Many legal cases have cited the 14th Amendment. It was also at the center the civil rights movement, which challenged discrimination and voter suppression black Americans faced.

Black Americans faced Supreme Court challenges (like Plessy v. Ferguson in 1898) that defended separation of the races. They also faced challenges at the polls. Legal state discrimination included requiring blacks to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test before they could vote. Many also faced threats of violence, lynching and other scare tactics.

The federal government finally reinforced black Americans' right to vote in the 1960s. Many people participated in speeches, sit-ins and marches supporting voting rights for blacks. The 24th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected the right of black Americans and others to vote.

The Fight For Women's Suffrage

Women were important opponents to slavery in the mid 19th century. They saw similarities in how enslaved people and women were treated during the period. A women's rights movement developed around the 1840s under the leadership of women including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, they introduced the "Declaration of Sentiments." That document included a change to the Declaration of Independence, declaring that "all men and women are created equal." This was an important step toward women's suffrage in the United States.

Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote in 1869. It was not until 1920 that white women were granted the ability to vote nationwide. African American women continued to face obstacles to vote for many years following the 19th Amendment. Progressive reforms and women's work in factories during World War I helped drive support. The National American Woman Suffrage Association's constant protests, campaigning and marches finally gained support from prominent politicians such as President Woodrow Wilson. It led more women to become involved in politics and government.

Lowering The Voting Age

Through the 1960s, the voting age in the United States was 21. America was fighting a war in Vietnam at that time, and many men aged 18 and older were being drafted into the military. Americans recognized it was unfair that men and women old enough to go to war were not able to vote.

In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age for U.S. citizens by three years. Today, 18-year-olds across the country have the right to vote.

Voting largely left out nonwhite men and women, regardless of color, for much of American history. This voter registration drive at the Black Expo in Chicago, Illinois, took place in 1973, just eight years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.


After the Civil War and the end of slavery, Congress passed the 14th Amendment to extend citizenship to freed slaves. The amendment directs that "no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

This amendment gave freed African Americans citizenship, but they wouldn't get the right to vote for two more years. And even then, Southern states used a variety of tactics to suppress African American turnout for nearly a century afterwards.


Kentucky Voter Records Search

Perform a free Kentucky public voter records search, including voter registration checks, requirements, eligibility, voting districts, precincts and poll locations, registered parties, and absentee ballots.

The Kentucky Voter Records Search links below open in a new window and take you to third party websites that provide access to KY public records. Editors frequently monitor and verify these resources on a routine basis.

Help others by sharing new links and reporting broken links.

Kentucky State Board of Elections Voter Records https://vrsws.sos.ky.gov/vic/ Search Kentucky State Board of Elections voter information by name, date of birth, and social security number.

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Trigg County Contact Information https://triggcounty.ky.gov/eo/Pages/default.aspx View Trigg County elected officials directory, which includes phone numbers, fax numbers and email addresses.

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What Do the Oath Books Tell Us About Our Ancestor?

Only some entries give the race of the voter, but several of the volumes do not designate African Americans. The name of the person is given. The city and county where the person lived is also given. The registration of Kitty Heard from Elbert County, Georgia is given below from the oath book collection at FamilySearch.org:

Kitt H Heard, Col, Reconstruction Registration Oath Books 1867-1868 dist. 30 vol. 181-184 Elbert County book C Oglethorpe County, Elbert County, Madison County book D Madison County book E Elbert County, Oglethorpe County, Madison County Supplemental Oath Book: 2, 208, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CS9W-Q6L

The Exclusionary History of Voter Registration Dates to 1800 - HISTORY

"Direct" disenfranchisement refers to actions that explicitly prevent people from voting or having their votes counted, as opposed to "indirect" techniques, which attempt to prevent people's votes from having an impact on political outcomes (e.g., gerrymandering, ballot box stuffing, stripping elected officials of their powers).

The 15th Amendment prohibited explicit disenfranchisement on the basis of race or prior enslavement. So Southern states devised an array of alternative techniques designed to disenfranchise blacks and, to a lesser extent, poor whites. There were three broad, overlapping phases of the disenfranchisement process. From 1868-1888, the principal techniques of disenfranchisement were illegal, based on violence and massive fraud in the vote counting process. Starting in 1877, when Georgia passed the cumulative poll tax, states implemented statutory methods of disenfranchisement. From 1888-1908, states entrenched these legal techniques in their constitutions. Here we explore the principal means of direct disenfranchisement, and the attempts to use Federal law to prevent disenfranchisement, through 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. For the most part, until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th c., the Supreme Court acquiesced in the methods used to disenfranchise blacks by gutting the Federal laws enacted to protect blacks. Whenever it resisted, the Southern states followed the motto "if at first you don't succeed. . . ."

Violence was a principal means of direct disenfranchisement in the South before Redemption. In 1873, a band of whites murdered over 100 blacks who were assembled to defend Republican officeholders against attack in Colfax, Louisiana. Federal prosecutors indicted 3 of them under the Enforcement Act of 1870, which prohibited individuals from conspiring "to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the constitution or laws of the United States." The Supreme Court dismissed the indictments in U.S. v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1875), faulting them for failure to identify a right guaranteed by the federal government that had been violated in the slaughter: (1) Conceding that the right to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress or vote in federal elections was derived from the federal government, the Court argued that the right to participate in state politics was derived from the states, so individuals could look only to the states for protection of this right. (2) Conceding an exception, that the U.S. Constitution grants individuals the right against racial discrimination in the exercise of their rights to participate in state politics, the Court faulted the indictment for failure to charge a racial motivation for interference in the victims' right to vote (even though the racial motive was obvious). (3) In any event, the Court ruled that this federal right against racial discrimination was enforceable against the states only, not against individuals. (4) Other rights violated in the slaughter, such as the rights to life and against false imprisonment, were not derived from the federal government, so individuals had to resort to the states for protection of these rights. Cruikshank "rendered national prosecution of crimes against blacks virtually impossible, and gave a green light to acts of terror where local officials either could not or would not enforce the law." (Eric Foner, Reconstruction, 1989, 531).

Electoral fraud by ballot box stuffing, throwing out non-Democratic votes, or counting them for the Democrats even when cast for the opposition, was the norm in the Southern states before legal means of disenfranchisement were entrenched. Between 1880 and 1901, Congress seated 26 Republican or Populist congressional candidates who had been "defeated" through electoral fraud. (Kousser, Shaping of Southern Politics, 263). In a key test of federal power to prohibit fraud in state elections, prosecutors brought indictments, under the Enforcement Act of 1870, against two inspectors of elections in Kentucky, for their refusal to receive and count the vote of a black elector in a city election. The Supreme Court dismissed the indictments in U.S. v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 (1875). It eviscerated the Enforcement Act by throwing out its provisions for punishing election officials for depriving citizens of their voting rights, on the ground that they exceeded Congress' power to regulate elections. (The provisions stated that officials shall be punished for failure to count the votes of eligible electors, when the 15th Amendment granted Congress only the power to punish officials for depriving electors of the right to vote on account of race.) Although electoral fraud remained common in the South, it brought its practitioners under the glare of unfavorable publicity. This motivated a turn to legal means of disenfranchisement.

Georgia initiated the poll tax in 1871, and made it cumulative in 1877 (requiring citizens to pay all back taxes before being permitted to vote). Every former confederate state followed its lead by 1904. Although these taxes of $1-$2 per year may seem small, it was beyond the reach of many poor black and white sharecroppers, who rarely dealt in cash. The Georgia poll tax probably reduced overall turnout by 16-28%, and black turnout in half (Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics, 67-8). The purpose of the tax was plainly to disenfranchise, not to collect revenue, since no state brought prosecutions against any individual for failure to pay the tax. In 1937, a white man brought suit against Georgia's poll tax, alleging violations of the 14th Amendment and the 19th Amendment (prohibiting discrimination in the right to vote on account of sex). (Women not registered to vote were exempt from the poll tax). The Supreme Court rejected his arguments in Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937), disingenuously claiming that it was unrelated to any attempt to disenfranchise. It held that the poll tax was a legitimate device for raising revenue, and that the 19th Amendment regulated voting, not taxation. Although the 24th Amendment prohibited the poll tax in Federal elections, even that wasn't enough to prevent a last-ditch attempt to burden the right to vote with a tax. In Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965), the Court struck down a Virginia law requiring federal electors to file burdensome paperwork if they did not pay a poll tax. It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prohibit the poll tax in state elections. The Supreme Court independently declared poll taxes an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment in Harper v. Virginia State Bd. of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966).

The first implicit literacy test was South Carolina's notorious "eight-box" ballot, adopted in 1882. Voters had to put ballots for separate offices in separate boxes. A ballot for the governor's race put in the box for the senate seat would be thrown out. The order of the boxes was continuously shuffled, so that literate people could not assist illiterate voters by arranging their ballots in the proper order. The adoption of the secret ballot constituted another implicit literacy test, since it prohibited anyone from assisting an illiterate voter in casting his vote. In 1890, Southern states began to adopt explicit literacy tests to disenfranchise voters. This had a large differential racial impact, since 40-60% of blacks were illiterate, compared to 8-18% of whites. Poor, illiterate whites opposed the tests, realizing that they too would be disenfranchised. To placate them, Southern states adopted an "understanding clause" or a "grandfather clause," which entitled voters who could not pass the literacy test to vote, provided they could demonstrate their understanding of the meaning of a passage in the constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar, or were or were descended from someone eligible to vote in 1867, the year before blacks attained the franchise. Discriminatory administration ensured that blacks would not be eligible to vote through the understanding clause. However, illiterate whites also felt the impact of the literacy tests, since some of the understanding and grandfather clauses expired after a few years, and some whites were reluctant to expose their illiteracy by publicly resorting to them. The Supreme Court struck down Oklahoma's grandfather clause in Guinn v. U.S., 238 U.S. 347 (1915), as an obvious ruse to evade the 15th Amendment. Oklahoma responded to Guinn by passing a law requiring all those who had not voted in the 1914 election (when the grandfather clause was still in effect) to register to vote within 11 days, or forever forfeit the franchise. The Supreme Court invalidated this arrangement in Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939). None of this touched the literacy tests, only the white exemption from it. Not until 1949 in Davis v. Schnell, 81 F. Supp. 872, did a Federal court strike down discriminatory administration of a literacy test. In Lassiter v. Northampton Cty. Bd. of Ed., 360 U.S. 45 (1959), the Court upheld the Constitutionality of literacy tests, notwithstanding their differential racial impact, provided states were willing to have their impact fall on illiterate whites as well. Congress abolished literacy tests in the South with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and nationwide in 1970.

Restrictive and Arbitrary Registraton Practices

Southern states made registration difficult, by requiring frequent re-registration, long terms of residence in a district, registration at inconvenient times (e.g., planting season), provision of information unavailable to many blacks (e.g. street addresses, when black neighborhoods lacked street names and numbers), and so forth. When blacks managed to qualify for the vote even under these measures, registrars would use their discretion to deny them the vote anyway. Alabama's constitution of 1901 was explicitly designed to disenfranchise blacks by such restrictive and fraudulent means. Despite this, Jackson Giles, a black janitor, qualified for the vote under Alabama's constitution. He brought suit against Alabama on behalf of himself and 75,000 similarly qualified blacks who had been arbitrarily denied the right to register. The Supreme Court rejected his claim in Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475 (1903). In the most disingenuous reasoning since Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) (rejecting a challenge to state-mandated racial segregation of railroad cars, on the ground that blacks' claims that segregation was intended to relegate them to inferior status was a figment of their imaginations), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put Giles in a catch-22: if the Alabama constitution did indeed violate the 15th Amendment guarantee against racial discrimination in voting, then it is void and Giles cannot be legally registered to vote under it. But if it did not, then Giles' rights were not violated. But, in the face of Giles' evidence of fraud, the Court cannot assume that the constitution is valid and thereby order his registration in accordance with its provisions. Holmes also held that Federal courts had no jurisdication over state electoral practices, and no power to enforce their judgements against states. Undaunted, Giles filed suit for damages against the registrars in state court, and also petitioned the court to order the registrars to register him. The state court dismissed his complaints and the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed, offering another catch-22: if Alabama's voting laws violated the 14th and 15th Amendments as Giles alleged, then the registrars had no valid laws under which they could register him. But if the laws were valid, then the registrars enjoyed immunity from damages for the ways they interpreted them. The Supreme Court affirmed this decision in Giles v. Teasley, 193 U.S. 146 (1904).

Disenfranchisement brought about one-party rule in the Southern states. This meant that the Democratic nominee for any office was assured of victory in the general election, shifting the real electoral contest to the party primary. This fact provided yet another opportunity to disenfranchise blacks. Texas passed a law forbidding blacks from participating in Democratic primary elections. The Supreme Court struck down this law as a plain violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments in Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927). So Texas passed another law providing for each party's state executive committee to determine who could vote in its primaries. Accordingly, the Texas Democratic Party Executive Committee resolved to permit only white Democrats to participate in its primary. The idea was that, as a private association, the party executive committee was not subject to the 14th and 15th Amendments, which applied only to the states. The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning in Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73 (1932), holding that the Texas Democratic Party Executive Committee got its power to determine party membership from the state of Texas, and so acted as state officials. The State Democratic Convention promptly met and passed a resolution limiting party membership to whites. This was enough to satisfy the Supreme Court that only private parties, not the state, were involved in determining primary electors (despite the fact that the state required and regulated primaries). It therefore upheld the exclusion of blacks from the Texas Democratic primary in Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935). However, in U.S. v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, a case involving electoral fraud in a primary election, the Supreme Court acknowledged that primary elections were such an integral part of the selection of government officeholders that federal laws guaranteeing the right to vote applied to them. The conflict between Grovey and Classic was resolved in Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944), which found that primary elections were so pervasively regulated by the state that, in doing their part to run primaries, political parties were state actors and thus subject to the 14th and 15th Amendments. Texas Democrats evaded this ruling by arrangement with the all-white Jaybird Democratic Association (a leadership caucus within the party), which held elections unregulated by the state. The winner of the Jaybird Party election would enter the Democratic party primary, and the Democratic party would put up no opposition, thus ensuring victory to the Jaybird Party candidate. The Supreme Court saw through this ruse in Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953), finally putting an end to the white primary after 9 years of acquiescence and 26 years of litigation.

The history of black disenfranchisement demonstrates that it was a product not simply of the actions of Southern states and individuals, but of a failure to uphold and exercise federal power. Congress failed to fully exercise its powers under the 14th amendment (for example, it never reduced Southern states' congressional representation in proportion to its illegal disenfranchisement, as it was authorized to do). The Supreme Court actively undermined federal executive powers to protect black voting rights, refused to acknowledge racial discrimination even when it was obvious, and acquiesced in blatant constitutional violations by resorting to specious reasoning. Although it slowly came around in some cases, historian Eric Foner's judgment, that reconstruction is "America's unfinished revolution" remains true to this day. Click on the right arrow below to survey contemporary techniques of disenfranchisement.

The information on this page draws from:

J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (Yale UP, 1974) and Samuel Issacharoff, Pamela Karlan and Richard Pildes, The Law of Democracy (Foundation press, 1998).


Background

Pre-registration hasn’t always been a requirement to vote. In the earliest years of the republic, it was assumed that local officials personally knew the small number of residents in their towns who met the property qualifications to vote. Massachusetts instituted the first pre-registration requirement in 1800. The earliest registration processes were mostly used to enforce the requirement that qualified voters must pay their taxes. Anti-immigration agitation in the 1830s saw another wave of state voter registration laws that were aimed at keeping non-citizens from the polls. (Until then, several states granted non-citizens the right to vote.) Still, throughout most of the 19th century, pre-registration was not a requirement to vote in all states.

Voter registration that resembles modern practices began in the late 1800s when states expanded their registration requirements, paying particular attention to controlling the voting of city dwellers, immigrants, and African Americans. During the so-called Progressive Era (1890–1920), many states adopted voter registration laws that applied only to cities. Among the reasons for this specificity was the desire of rural-dominated state legislatures to blunt the political power of rapidly growing urban areas, which were growing largely through the influx of new immigrants. In addition, stories of political corruption and vote fraud, such as “repeat voting,” tended to arise most often in urban settings.

Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870 stating the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged. on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the late 1800s witnessed the enactment of many laws that denied African Americans their newly won constitutional rights. As chronicled by C. Vann Woodward’s classic book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the official disfranchisement of African Americans became especially aggressive in the South at a time when black politicians were just becoming successful in forming coalitions with blocs of whites. In addition to imposing extraordinary voting requirements such as literacy tests that disadvantaged black citizens, Southern voter registration in general was becoming increasingly burdened by registration regulations.

State voter registration laws that sprang up at the turn of the twentieth century applied to voters of all races and deterred the participation of all but the most persistent citizens. For instance, many states required voters to register annually, and/or removed voters from the rolls if they failed to vote in an election. Registration closing dates—the date on which the voter registration rolls would be closed before an upcoming election—were often months ahead of elections. Even as late as 1972, five states cut off registration more than a month before an election.

The civil rights movement that succeeded in the passage of the Voting Rights Act also spawned related movements that called for lowering voter registration barriers for reasons other than race. The President's Commission on Registration and Voting Participation appointed by President Kennedy in early 1963 recommended a series of reforms to ease voter registration, most of which were eventually adopted. Among these were reducing the gap between registration closing dates and elections, reducing residency requirements, and increasing opportunities to vote absentee.

The National Voter Registration Act (also known as the “NVRA” and the “Motor Voter Act”) of 1993 represented the culmination of a quarter-century of efforts to relax the strict voter registration requirements that had grown up over the previous century. Prior to its enactment, efforts had been made to pass federal laws instituting a national “postcard” registration form and to encourage states to adopt “motor voter” laws—that is, laws allowing citizens to register when they got their driver’s licenses.

The first attempt to pass the NVRA failed in 1992 when Congress passed the law but President George H.W. Bush vetoed it. Just one year later, Congress passed a similar measure, which was signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. The NVRA contained the following major provisions:

  • States were required to allow voter registration by mail.
  • States were required to offer voters the opportunity to register to vote simultaneously when applying for a driver’s license, and were also required to offer registration at public assistance agencies.
  • States were not allowed to remove voters from the rolls solely for non-voting. Voters were allowed to be removed only if they requested it or if they died, moved out of jurisdiction, or were removed because of a felony conviction or mental incapacity.

Although the NVRA prohibited the removal of voters from the rolls simply for non-voting, it did allow states to use non-voting as a trigger to inquire whether a non-voter had moved from the jurisdiction without notifying local election officials. In particular, a state can remove someone from the rolls if it sends a notice to a non-voter and the non-voter fails to respond (or vote) within the next two federal elections.

The NVRA exempted states that either did not have a voter registration requirement or allowed registration on Election Day at the polls at the time the NVRA passed. Later, the exemption was extended to two states that passed Election Day registration soon after the passage of the NVRA. As a consequence, the following six states are exempt from the NVRA: Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.


Literacy Tests and Voting Rights

Some states, such as Connecticut, used literacy tests in the mid-1800s to keep Irish immigrants from voting, but Southern states didn’t use literacy tests until after Reconstruction in 1890. Sanctioned by the federal government, these tests were used well into the 1960s. They were given ostensibly to test the voters' ability to read and write, but in reality they were designed to discriminate against Black American and sometimes poor White voters. Since, at that time, 40% to 60% of Black people were illiterate, compared to 8% to 18% of White people, these tests had a large differential racial impact.

Southern states also imposed other standards, all of which were arbitrarily set by the test administrator. Favored were those who owned property, or had grandfathers who had been able to vote (“grandfather clause”) people with “good character,” and those who paid poll taxes. Because of these impossible standards, of the 130,334 registered Black voters in Louisiana in 1896, only 1% could pass the state's new rules eight years later.   Even in areas where the Black population was substantially greater, these standards kept the White voting population in the majority.

The administration of literacy tests was unfair and discriminatory. If the administrator wanted a person to pass, they could ask an easy question—for example, "Who is the president of the United States?”   While the same official could require a much higher standard of a Black person, even requiring that they answer every question correctly. It was up to the test administrator whether the prospective voter passed or failed, and even if a Black man was well-educated, he would most likely fail, because the test was created with failure as a goal.   Even if a potential Black voter knew all the answers to the questions, the official administering the test could still fail him.

Literacy tests were not declared unconstitutional in the South until 95 years after the 15th Amendment was ratified, by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Five years later, in 1970, Congress abolished literacy tests and discriminatory voting practices nationwide, and as a result, the number of registered Black American voters increased dramatically.


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