Voter suppression, then and now
In Wisconsin in April, in the early days of the pandemic, some voters waited in line for hours in the cold to cast a ballot in the primary. In Georgia in June, thousands of people never got their absentee ballots and had to wait in line for hours to vote. In Texas in July, voters learned the day before the election that a number of polling sites would be closed. There, too, many ended up waiting in hours-long lines.
As the general election approaches, in the midst of a pandemic, President Donald Trump has also been stepping up his attacks on mail-in voting, and there are mounting concerns over a politically-motivated slowdown of mail delivery at the United States Postal Service.
All of this “fits into a 150-year effort to make it harder for Black voters, Latino voters and poor people to have equal access to the ballot box,” said David Daley, author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”
Voter suppression has been around as long as the United States, though it has taken many different forms throughout the years.
There are the blatant forms of voter suppression, like poll taxes and literacy tests, and intimidation and physical violence that Black voters faced for much of American history. And there are the less blatant but still effective forms of voter suppression that exist today, like strict voter ID laws, the consolidation of polling places, and voters being purged from the rolls.
Here are just some of the tactics states have used in the past, and are using today, to make it hard or impossible for some citizens to vote.
Almost as soon the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, granting Black men the right to vote, states started looking for ways to prevent them from casting ballots. Many, including all 11 former Confederate states, instituted poll taxes.
“The poll tax was lethal,” said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.”
Poll taxes could easily be 2% to 6% of a Black farm family’s annual income in Mississippi, according to Anderson. The taxes also had to be paid in cash, which could also be an insurmountable barrier, particularly for Black families who worked as sharecroppers.
“You didn’t get paid until after the harvest came in, and the landowner is the one who kept the books,” Anderson said. “What that meant with the poll tax is that it had to be paid in cash, but when it was due is not when the sharecroppers had cash.”
In several states, including Mississippi, poll taxes were also cumulative.
“The law required that when you turned 21 you were supposed to pay your poll tax. If you couldn’t pay it when you were 21, and you couldn’t pay it the next year, and you couldn’t pay it the next year — say it takes you 20 years to be able to pay the poll tax — you owe 20 years of back poll taxes before you could cast a ballot,” Anderson said.
Poll taxes could be a barrier for poor white men, too, but to get around that, states often instituted grandfather clauses, which allowed men to vote even if they couldn’t afford to pay, as long as they or their father or grandfather had qualified to vote before the Civil War.
States justified the need for a poll tax by saying, “we’ve got to end corruption at the ballot box, we want to maintain the integrity of our elections,” Anderson said. And, on top of that: “democracy is expensive. All of these elections, where you’ve got to have poll workers, you have to have places where people are casting their ballots, you gotta have people who are counting the ballots, all of that really adds up. And if you really believe in democracy, you would be willing to pay a small fee, a small tax in order to ensure that it runs smoothly.”
On paper, the way poll taxes and grandfather clauses were written was “race neutral,” Daley said. “That is why courts were willing to uphold this for a long period of time, deep into the 20th century. But of course, it had disproportionate effect. It was race neutral language that had a very specific racial intent.”
Poll taxes were legal — and remained in place in several states — until 1964, when the 24th Amendment was ratified.
Literacy and understanding tests
In addition to poll taxes, many states also instituted literacy and understanding tests as another way to prevent Black people from voting. As with the poll tax, states found ways to justify requiring literacy tests that sounded reasonable, Anderson said.
“We really want an intelligent electorate. We want an engaged electorate. We want people voting who know how and what our system of government is. And so we don’t think it’s too much to ask to have them read and interpret a section of the Constitution,” she said.
In reality, literacy tests had nothing to do with making sure someone could read or understand the Constitution, and they were anything but straightforward or fair. White people often did not have to take them at all, and if they did, they were often given the simplest questions, or given a pass even if they got the answers wrong. Black people, on the other hand, were almost always set up to fail, according to Anderson.
A white person might be asked to name the president of the United States, while a Black person might be required to read and interpret a complicated section of the Constitution filled with legal jargon, or answer an impossible question, such as: How many beans are in this jar? Or, how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?
“It was completely arbitrary, and intended to keep Black and brown people from registering to vote,” said Gilda Daniels, the author of “Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America.” “So whatever number you would provide would be the wrong number.”
Even if the tests had been actual, straightforward literacy tests, administered impartially, many Black men would not have been able to pass.
“The distinctions in funding for education were profound,” Anderson said. “In Mississippi, per capita, white children basically were funded at 10 times the rate of Black children. There was a point in Jackson, Mississippi where African Americans made up 60% of school age children and they were allocated 9% of the budget.”
Across the South, in 1950, nearly 45% of Black adults in the South had gotten less than four years of formal schooling, compared to 13% of white adults, according to a National Historic Landmarks Theme Study.
Literacy tests were legal until 1965, when they were banned under the Voting Rights Act.
After the Civil War, a number of Southern states, including Florida, Mississippi and Alabama, rewrote their existing laws disenfranchising people convicted of a felony in a way that more directly targeted Black men.
“Florida in 1868 holds a new constitutional convention, because if Florida had allowed free Blacks to vote, the black population in Florida would have outnumbered whites, and they were not willing to allow that to be,” Daley said. “They took the crimes that were most likely to be committed by poor Blacks and poor whites, and they made those felonies that came with, essentially, permanent disenfranchisement.”
Minor crimes, like petty theft, became felonies. In 1880, a Black man named Cuffie Washington was barred from voting for stealing three oranges.
“You have Black Codes, new laws on vagrancy, petty theft and other crimes that the legislature believed most likely to be committed by Blacks. Those crimes become elevated to a felony status,” Daley said. “And it proves extraordinarily effective at suppressing voter turnout. Black turnout in Florida tumbles from 67% in the early 1880s to 11% by 1892. And even by the mid-20th century, it really hadn’t improved.”
As of 2016, one of every 13 Black adults in the United States was disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project. In Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, that number was one in five.
Many states have moved to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they’ve completed their sentences, including Florida. In 2018, voters approved Amendment 4 to the state’s constitution, automatically restoring voting rights to those convicted of a felony — other than murder or sexual assault — once they have completed their sentence.
But then the Republican-led legislature passed a bill that Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law requiring people to pay all outstanding legal financial obligations — fines, fees and restitution — before their sentence could be considered complete. This month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that that is constitutional, meaning more than 770,000 people in Florida will have to pay some amount of money — often more than they can afford — in order to vote in the upcoming election.
Gerrymandering — the drawing of districts to give an advantage to a political party — has been around since at least the early 1800s, and has historically been used to dilute the voting power of Black people and other minority groups.
In the decades since the Voting Rights Act passed, the Supreme Court has found that racial gerrymandering violates the Constitution, but that partisan gerrymandering does not — though the effect is often similar.
“What gerrymandering does is it dilutes the power of your vote,” Daley said. “Thanks to partisan gerrymandering, there are 59 million Americans right now who live in a state in which one or both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by the party that won fewer votes in 2018. So that’s a pretty serious chunk of minority rule.”
Voter ID laws
Over the last decade, and particularly since the Supreme Court gutted a key piece of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, more and more states have passed laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls.
Thirty five states now have some form of voter ID law in effect. Of those, nine have strict voter ID laws, meaning if voters show up to the polls without an accepted form of ID, they have to cast a provisional ballot and then return to an election office later with some form of ID in order for their vote to be counted.
Strict ID laws, in particular, have been found to reduce voter turnout by 2%-3% across the board, according to a 2014 study from the Government Accountability Office. They have also been found to reduce voter turnout among Black, Latinx and multiracial voters more so than among white voters.
“What we have seen is that these states are requiring specific forms of ID that they know that minorities and poor people are least likely to have, and perhaps can’t afford to go and get,” Daley said. “So it puts this extra burden on people in much the same way that a poll tax did 75 or 80 years ago.”
In Texas, a state-issued student ID is not accepted at the polls, but a handgun license is; more than half of students at the University of Texas are non-white, while more than 80% of people with gun licenses are white.
Across the country, Black voters are significantly less likely than white voters to have a current government-issued ID, the GAO found. So are Latinx voters, Native Americans, the elderly and the poor. Getting an ID can be expensive. In some places, it can also require traveling long distances.
“In states like Alabama, in Wisconsin, in Georgia, when these ID bills have been passed, they have been followed by closing the motor vehicle offices in specifically Black counties, that has made it even more difficult for people to go ahead and get these IDs. So you would have to take a day off from work, perhaps, and take a really long trip in order to go and get these IDs,” Daley said.
In Texas, when the state passed its voter ID law, a federal court found that some residents — many of them poor — would have had to travel 250 miles to the nearest DMV to get an ID.
“That’s a significant economic burden. That’s a day off from work. That’s childcare. That’s the expense of the trip. It’s the expense of any forms. It might not be specifically called a poll tax, but in many ways, that’s exactly how it operates,” Daley said. “It’s all about putting small barriers in front of people that in the end, add up, and make it less likely for people of certain socioeconomic classes to vote.”
Reducing polling places and early voting
In recent years, many states around the country have reduced the number of polling places especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods, and long lines have become increasingly common. Some states have also cut down on early voting, contributing to longer lines on Election Day.
“If you are a Black or Latino voter in this nation, you are going to stand in line to vote 45% longer than if you are a white voter,” Daley said. “In the 2012 election, a white voter in a white neighborhood had the shortest wait time of anybody else in America — a wait of just seven minutes, on average, to vote. That can stretch, as we’ve seen in Wisconsin and Georgia, to seven hours in some minority neighborhoods.”
In Fulton County, Georgia, where Atlanta is, there were 80 fewer precincts open in June than in the last election. In Jefferson County, Kentucky, where Louisville is, there was just one polling place open for the primary this year — for some 600,000 registered voters. Last year, Texas closed the most polling sites of any state in the country — mostly in communities with growing numbers of Black and Latinx residents.
That is the case around the country — when states consolidate polling places, more often than not, it is Black and Latinx communities that have to travel further, and wait longer, to vote.
“What we also know is that for every 10th of a mile that a polling station is moved from the Black community, Black voter turnout goes down by .5%, up to four miles,” Anderson said. “It’s a function of access to transportation, and how much it costs to be able to get to that polling station.”
Making it harder to vote by mail
For months now, President Trump has been attacking the idea of voting by mail. This despite the pandemic, the fact that he himself regularly votes by mail, and despite the fact that millions of people cast votes by mail every election year with no issue.
On top of that, there has been mounting concern and controversy in the last few months over cost-cutting measures at the Post Office in advance of the election. There have already been significant slowdowns in mail delivery around the country, and over the summer, the Postal Service sent letters to election officials in 46 states and Washington D.C. warning that millions of ballots could be delayed.
And while a number of states have expanded access to mail in voting ahead of the election, there are still five states where fear of COVID-19 is not on the list of accepted reasons to request an absentee ballot — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Indiana.
All of that is “part and parcel of voter suppression,” Anderson said. “Because we’re in the middle of a pandemic — a pandemic that disproportionately affects African Americans and Hispanics — in order to be able to vote safely, it is about mail in ballots. So if you remove that option, if you make that option very difficult, if you undermine the credibility of the post office even being able to deliver your ballot in time, then it makes people have to make the choice: I’m [not] going to vote, or I’m going to risk dying.”
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