How has the vote been suppressed in the past?
Voter suppression involves using laws, policies, and practices to dissuade or prevent a group of people (typically targeted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or sex) from voting.
Voter suppression has a long history in the United States. Here are a few of the more common forms of voter suppression used throughout our history...
WASH. AREA SPARK
Poll taxes were fees which voters had to pay at county offices before an election in order to vote. This policy disenfranchised many poor voters, Black and White, but was often used specifically to block African Americans from voting in the South.
Literacy tests required voters to demonstrate that they could read and write before being allowed to vote. These tests could be very confusing and were often administered in ways which disenfranchised Black voters in the South.
Toward the end of the 19th century, many states began requiring naturalized citizens to present their citizenship papers in order to vote. This was done in the name of reducing fraud, but effectively disenfranchised many immigrants.
While it is a nearly universal practice in the United States today, voter registration requirements were originally introduced to allow political parties to restrict the voting population to their benefit.
Perhaps most tragically, various forms of violence have also been used to intimidate and prevent Americans — especially African Americans — from voting.
In fact, this election day will mark the 100th anniversary of the Ocoee Massacre in Florida, which took place during the 1920 presidential election.
After a number of African Americans in Ocoee were denied the opportunity to vote on November 2, 1920, a skirmish broke out when a white posse attempted to arrest Julius “July” Perry, a Black businessman who had been helping Black residents register to vote. Perry was eventually captured, arrested, and lynched.
Following the skirmish, a white mob stormed a Black neighborhood in Ocoee, destroying over 20 buildings and 2 churches. An estimated 30-60 African Americans were killed during the attack. No arrests were ever made in connection to the violence.
Over 60 articles were published by local newspapers in the aftermath of the attack and nearly 370 were published across the country. Some of the local articles (including the report from the Ocala Evening Star seen below) downplayed the number of casualties and emphasized the role of Black voters in starting the violence.
More common than massacres were lynchings, public murders which served to further disenfranchise African Americans.
Following the end of Reconstruction in 1877, a period during which African American men voted and served in public office in the South, Southern states enacted laws restricting African American access to the ballot box. These laws included things like poll taxes and literacy tests.
Additionally, white mobs would lynch African Americans (often for completely made up offenses) in order to intimidate and dissuade others from voting. Many lynchings were treated as public spectacles during which large white crowds witnessed and participated in the torture and mutilation of Black victims.
The Equal Justice Initiative has documented 4425 lynchings of African Americans across the country between 1877–1950. An overwhelming majority of these lynchings (4084 of them) took place in the South.
The legacy of this horrific practice continues to haunt America in numerous ways, including at the ballot box. One scholar has shown that African Americans who live in Southern counties which witnessed relatively high numbers of lynchings between 1882–1930 have lower levels of voter registration today.
Additionally, American women were almost entirely excluded from the electoral process until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Yet, even after ratification, Black women still faced barriers to the ballot box until the 1960s.
While most of these methods of voter suppression have since been prohibited by voting rights legislation, new and more subtle forms of voter suppression have risen in their place...
As with historic voter suppression, these new modern methods must be confronted and prohibited if America is to fulfill its potential as a democracy.
To learn more about and view historic literacy tests, please check out the Civil Rights Movement Archive. You can also watch this 2014 video of Harvard students attempting to pass the 1964 Louisiana literacy test. Check out info on literacy tests and poll taxes from the National Museum of American History’s exhibit on American democracy.
To learn more about the history of lynching in America, you can read the most recent edition of the Equal Justice Initiative’s comprehensive report on the subject. You can also read an article by Professor Mara Suttman-Lea of Connecticut College on how lynching was used to disenfranchise African Americans.
Watch the recording of the premiere event for the Institute’s new program, The Citizen’s Senate: Women’s Fight for Suffrage. This recording includes the premiere performance of The Citizen’s Senate program, plus a panel discussion featuring local scholars.
You can also watch this New York Times video on the history of voter suppression and voting rights.