Immediately after the reconstruction era, southern states made several efforts to prevent their fellow black minority from either voting or registering to vote. The actions of the white supremacists defied the American Constitution and particularly the Fifteenth Amendment that gave African men the right to vote. It is important to first take note of the events that culminated before the disenfranchisement was initiated. During the Reconstruction period, black Africans were suppressed from voting through the use of paramilitary force fraud and even violence. Before the era, Africans who were mostly Republicans had combined efforts with the Populists to force out most of the Democrats out of office. Alarmed by such foregoing, the Whites disbanded the current city government illegally and used the opportunity to pass legislations that were discriminatory against the black Africans (Key, 1949).
After the Civil War that ended in 1865, The Reconstruction in the Southern states started and Congress refused to readmit the states back because they did not safeguard the rights of freedmen to vote. In fact, among the eleven Southern States, only one provided suffrage to freedmen by the year 1866. The events that led to the discrimination of the black Americans from voting were perhaps fueled by the fear of black domination in the Confederate states. Statistically, blacks constituted an absolute majority of the populations in those States. The era from 1865 to 1870 saw the use of white supremacist military organizations to assassinate, violate and intimidate blacks. These attempts were geared towards repressing and preventing the blacks from voting during elections. The Ku Klux Klan formed in 1865 dominated majority of the Southern States and spearheaded the oppression of the black people (Kev, 1949). The blacks and their white sympathizers were the target of these attacks. The teachers that taught the freed black men were continuously attacked under the watch of the white rulers. The vigilante group vandalized and destroyed the property of black Africans and lynched, the blacks altogether. In the 1868 elections, votes of 700000 blacks helped Republican Grant to assume the presidency. Two years later, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified to protect the blacks’ suffrage from abuse by the Southern States. In the same year, 1870, the Congress, composed of mainly Republicans, enacted the Enforcement Act which gave the President the right to used the army in suppressing organizations that infringed on the blacks right to vote. Despite these developments that spelled hope for the minorities, there was little progress as the white supremacists fought back in the post reconstruction era.
In their desire to repress blacks from voting, Southern whites used a number of techniques. One of the techniques was the use of violence which was the principal method of disenfranchisement way before the Redemption. Violence against blacks was widespread in the Southern States and was geared towards repression of the blacks’ right to vote. The violence was either through small groups of white supremacists or through organized networks such as the Ku Klux Klan that murdered hundreds of black citizens across the Confederate States. In 1873, for instance, black citizens surpassing one hundred were killed by a group of whites as they assembled to defend elected Republicans from impeding attacks. Three of the white attackers were indicted under the Enforcement Act but the Supreme Court overturned the decision two years later. The argument from the bench was that they had failed to identify any violated right guaranteed by the federal government in the particular case. The Supreme Court ruling dealt a big blow to protection of national crimes against the blacks and actually encouraged the attacks against the black citizens.
Electoral fraud was another method used in suppressing the blacks’ right to suffrage and was orchestrated through the famous ballot box stuffing method. In the methods, votes belonging to Republicans were thrown out and others were counted to be for the Democrats against the knowledge of the blacks. The vice was so widespread that 26 Republican candidates were ‘defeated’ through electoral fraud. In the same fashion, the federal courts indicted two election inspectors for their failure to count the vote of a black man. The Supreme Court however, dismissed the prosecutions in 1875 on the basis that the provisions in the Enforcement Act exceeded the power of the Congress to regulate elections. Despite remaining common in the Southern States, electoral fraud was minimized as it brought an unfavorable publicity among the practitioners.
The poll tax, initiated in Georgia in 1871, required that citizens would not be allowed to vote until they had paid all back taxes. Despite being meager in the fact that they were between 1 and 2 dollars, the taxes were not affordable for most black citizens. This, coupled with the fact that the law backdated the provisions, made matters worse for the black citizens and was a calculated move aimed at denying them the right to vote. The outcome of the legislation was a reduction in the number of black voters by about 50%. The fact that no state prosecuted any individual for failing to pay their taxes pointed to the fact that the legislation was not meant to collect revenue but was a disenfranchisement technique. It was only after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that poll taxes were prohibited in states.
A literacy test was another successful technique in the suppression of blacks’ right to suffrage. In South Carolina, the literacy test required voters to put ballots in separate boxes depending on the post they are voting for thereby testing the voters’ literacy. In the event that a voter put a ballot paper for the governorship post in the senate box, the vote would be thrown out and not counted. Further, the boxes were rearranged frequently thereby making it hard for the literate people to guide the illiterate ones on the order of ballot boxes. The incorporation of the secret ballot also worked to disenfranchise black voters since it prohibited literate people from helping their illiterate fellows to cast a vote. Following the success of the implicit literacy tests in barring the blacks from voting, Southern States started the use of explicit literacy test in 1890. The literacy test made the voter turnout among the black citizens to reduce since most of them were illiterate.
The whites also resorted to restrictive and arbitrary practices of disenfranchisement by making the process of registration difficult. The processes also required frequent re-registration and residence in a district for a long term thus frustrating efforts by the blacks to vote. The registration process also required provision of information that would be unavailable to most black citizens such as their postal address and street addresses when they very well knew that black neighborhoods had no street names for example. The other restrictive process involved the registration of voters at times inconvenient for the black citizens such as during planting seasons and so forth. All these efforts were geared towards disadvantaging the black citizens and therefore making their rights to vote unattainable. Even when the blacks managed to register as voters, the registrars would still use their discretion to deny them of their suffrage rights.
The white primary was also another technique that worked against the blacks’ right to vote. The disenfranchisement measures had ensured that only the Democrats candidates would assume office and therefore, the real election was shifted to the party primaries. Texas state passed a legislation that barred blacks from participating in primary elections for the Democrats party. Despite being struck out by the Supreme Court, Texas went ahead to pass another law that required each party’s executive committee to decide who could take part in the primary elections. In addition, Texas passed another law that gave each party’s executive committee the right to determine the party’s membership and this law passed the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. All the legislations passed were geared towards restricting the number of black people in the Democrats party therefore giving them no influence as to who the flag bearer of the party would be.
The disenfranchisement of voters did not just stop at once but was as a result of efforts by many individuals and groups that fought for those rights. Court cases argued out in defense of the black citizens’ right of voting were particularly helpful in ending the disenfranchisement. I n 1965, for instance, the Supreme Court dismissed a regulation in Virginia that required individuals to file cumbersome paperwork if they failed to pay the poll tax. In the following year, the same court further declared the poll taxes as unconstitutional in its ruling in the Harper v. Virginia State. The ruling was helpful in achieving suffrage rights of the many black citizens that were being oppressed in Virginia. In 1915, the Supreme Court, in Guinn v. United States, invalidated the ‘grandfather clause’ in the Oklahoma Constitution that had disenfranchised black citizens.
The law passed in Texas forbidding black citizens from participating in primaries for the Democrats party was struck out by the Supreme Court in 1927 in the case of Nixon v. Herndon. Attempts by the State to manipulate the law to suit the ruling by the Judiciary were thwarted in a 1932 case pitting Nixon v. Condon. The court held that the law was discriminatory in that black citizens were barred from participating in the elections. The same rulings were declared in successive court cases including in the case of U.S v. Classic in a case that involved electoral fraud. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case in which it struck out white primaries in the case of Smith v. Allwright. The court found that the primaries were so much regulated by the states and that the executive committee members were agents of the state that they were subject to the 14th and 15th Amendments. Attempts of a ruse in which Democrats party used the primaries of Jaybird Party to select their candidates were stopped by the Supreme Court in Terry v. Adams. The ruling in this case finally put an end to the white primary after approximately nine years of practice.
Modern Day Voting
With the battles that were fought to end the disenfranchisement of black citizens, one would expect that the current regimes in the South would work towards upholding such victories. However, things are not as one would expect and modern voter disenfranchisement is still rife in the southern states. This disenfranchisement is achieved through ‘modern’ methods that are disguised as voting laws and regulations. It appears therefore, that the victory was not achieved and there is still a need to fight back to regain the rights of black citizens to vote (Brooks & Moffett, n.d.).
One method that is in common use in the south is the disenfranchisement of citizens with past felony convictions. Today, more than 5.3 million Americans are barred from participating in elections, a majority of whom are racial minorities and poor Americans. It is also common for errors to occur in the voter registers thereby denying many more Americans the right to partake in the democratic process. In particular, some citizens may find that their names match those of people on the list and end up being denied the chance of voting for their preferred candidates.
All the states, save for Maine and Vermont, prohibit citizens who are incarcerated for a felony from voting in an election. Thirty six of these states further disallow citizens with felony convictions from vote while on parole (Easton, n.d.). Three states continue to bar felons from voting throughout their lives even when they have served their sentences and reintegrated back into the community. In other states, felons of certain offenses are permanently disenfranchised while others require that the ex-felons wait for a certain set number of years before they are given back the right to vote in the elections (Miles, n.d.).
Another disenfranchisement technique used to bar black citizens is the harsh and burdensome voter ID requirements imposed on citizens. The laws require that citizens produce specific forms of identification before they can be allowed to vote. These requirements are a form of disadvantaging the minority black Americans that do not usually have driving licenses. The reason given for this type of legislation is the prevention of voter fraud but a keen eye reveals something different. In fact, there is no single indication of voter fraud existing to this day in the United States. Neither is there evidence that the voter ID requirements imposed contribute in any way towards its prevention. Studies have found out that only four ballots were found to be fraudulent in Ohio in 2002 out of the nine million ballots cast.
The proposal for the introduction of the ‘REAL ID’ which is highly expensive is particularly worrying for the many black citizens in the US. The reason for this worry is in the fact that it is significant with the traditional polling tax that was later bashed by the Supreme Court for its disenfranchisement techniques. The voter ID rules that have been passed in many different states serve to suppress the minority black citizens from expressing their democratic right of voting in elections. In more than 24 states, a majority of them being in the south require voter identification that is not affordable for most black Americans.
The application of such laws is motivated by the urge to prevent African Americans the right to vote in elections. The voter ID rules are passed in a bid to prevent poor Americans from affording the voting process by making the card very expensive. The felon disenfranchisement method is also targeted at the black citizens, majority of who face felony charges. In fact, most of the people charged for felon charges are black citizens who live in areas that have been earmarked for such charges. In some cases, the prosecutors and the police usually fabricate the charges against black citizens who end up being convicted falsely.
Other methods of disenfranchisement include the barriers to voter registration that make it extremely hard for black citizens to acquire voter ID. The barriers used may include proof of citizenship requirements and rules that require the registration applications to be sealed. Moreover, civic engagement groups find it hard to distribute and collect voter registration forms therefore reducing the number of black voters applying for voter registration.
Brooks, R., & Moffett, C. (n.d.). The Naked Truth. The Journal of Trading Trading, 46-59.
Easton, S. (n.d.). Electing the Electorate: The Problem of Prisoner Disenfranchisement. Modern Law Review, 443-452.
Key, V. O. (1949). Southern politics.
Miles, T. (n.d.). Felon Disenfranchisement And Voter Turnout. The Journal of Legal Studies, 85-129.
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