Voter suppression is back in the news thanks to recent attempts to apply restrictions on access to voting. In nearly every state, legislation has been proposed to alter existing voting regulations. After the 2020 election, many state-level legislators voiced concern over election “irregularities” although official reports definitively state that the 2020 election was the most secure on record. Underlying the new concerns about elections is a language which speaks to their intent—“legal” and “illegal” ballots, “harvesting” of votes, and “fraud” are words frequently used to argue that restrictions on early voting, absentee voting, and registration requirements be curtailed or otherwise enhanced. As numerous studies have shown, these efforts decrease Black and Hispanic voter registration and voting. In a democracy where you do not like the outcome, if you change the voters you can control electoral outcomes as a result. In recent Supreme Court testimony, Republican leaders openly admitted that voting regulations are being used to address their competitive advantage in elections. This naked admission of the use of voting regulations for political ends has said the quiet part of voter suppression out loud.
One particularly salient example is in Georgia. Legislators there are proposing new voting restrictions including the end of no-excuse absentee voting, curtailing Sunday voting (when many Black voters have voted in early voting “Souls to the Polls” events), and validation procedures which disproportionately nullify the registrations of Black and Hispanic voters. Despite Georgia having the longest wait times in the 2018 elections, new proposals would make it illegal to provide food or water to those in line to vote. Officials there are not only working to make voting more difficult, they are also hoping to make it physically painful as well.
There is nothing new about this strategy. Voter suppression is as old as the American republic itself. The earliest restrictions on voting were those that required property ownership. As noted by Keri Leigh Merritt, as slaveholding grew more concentrated in the South, so did enfranchisement. States used poll taxes in the antebellum era to restrict voting among White men. In states such as Georgia, bills were introduced annually to end the practice, but the elites controlling the legislature would not support them. Other voting restrictions, such as residency requirements and disenfranchisement for any conviction, even a misdemeanor, acted as further restrictions to poor White voting. Even states such as Mississippi and Texas who embraced their frontier status at the time, were not as egalitarian as they may have been. In Mississippi, the voting restrictions increased the share of enslavers among the legislature during the 1850s, a time in which the overall White rate of enslavement was declining.
After the Civil War, these same restrictions were put to new use on Black voting. While there was active voting among Black men immediately after the Civil War, the terrorism practiced by Whites drove Blacks from the polls and with White control of the state legislators Blacks were actively disenfranchised.
It is important to stress that the disenfranchisement from the Jim Crow era to the 1965 Voting Rights Act is at odds with any description of the United States as a democracy. Recent historical work has shown that between 1898 and 1944, essentially no Blacks in the state of Louisiana were registered to vote. In the 1940s, work by Earl Lewis found that Black registration and voting was, to a first approximation, non-existent in Mississippi. For example, in Leflore county Mississippi in 1946 there were 38,970 Blacks, but only 26 were registered to vote and none voted. It should strike anyone as ironic given that 1946 is the year after the United States defeated the Axis powers in World War II and made the world “safe for democracy.”
More recent work shows that the violence and intimidation that drove Blacks from the polls continues to influence voter registration among Blacks today. Lynching, which killed thousands of Black people throughout the South, was most intense in places that continue to have low rates of Black voter registration today. The narrative of lynching is that it was “rough justice” but we now know that lynching was politically targeted violence designed to instill fear among Black people and deny them of their right to access the ballot. While the brutal lynching of Emmet Till has been a national touchpoint for the consequences of racialized violence, few report on the fact that the murder of a 14 year old boy was an act of political intimidation. His killers explicitly said so when confessing to his murder in Look magazine in 1956: “But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If theydid, they’d control the government.”(emphasis added). Despite the lynching of Till being commonly regarded as a defense of White womanhood, borrowing on the trope of Black male aggression, in reality the murder of a young Black boy was to serve as a signal to the local Black community that political equality was a non-starter.
The unfounded fears about the 2020 election are already having an impact on the voting regulations Americans will face in the next election cycle. Indeed, the story of modern voter suppression is well underway, fueled by the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Now that states are free to impose restrictions on the franchise without federal oversight, the check on the disparities in voting regulations has lifted. While many describe this as a terrible outcome for American democracy, it is also a return to form for the ways that Americans have long sought to restrict the franchise.