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Thu, 02.03.1870

Voter Suppression in America, an article

*On this date in 1870, Voter Suppression in the United States is addressed. Voter Suppression concerns various legal and illegal efforts to prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to vote.

Where found, such voter suppression efforts vary by state, local government, precinct, and election. Separately, there have also been various efforts to enfranchise and disenfranchise various voters in the country, which concern whether or not people are eligible to vote in the first place.

The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment on this date in 1870 guaranteed the right to vote to men of all races, including former slaves. Initially, this resulted in high voter turnout among Blacks in the South. In the 1880 United States presidential election, most eligible Black voters cast a ballot in every Southern state except for two. In eight Southern states, Black turnout was equal to or greater than white turnout. At the end of the Reconstruction era, Southern states began implementing policies to suppress Black voters. 

In 1898, the “Grandfather Clause” was enacted. After 1890, less than 9,000 of Mississippi's 147,000 eligible Black voters were registered to vote, or about 6%. Louisiana went from 130,000 registered Black voters in 1896 to 1,342 in 1904 (about a 99% decrease). Poll taxes were used to disenfranchise voters, particularly Blacks and poor whites in the South. Poll taxes started in the 1890s, requiring eligible voters to pay a fee before casting a ballot. Some poor whites were grandfathered in if they had an ancestor who voted before the Civil War era. This meant that they were exempt from paying the tax. Eleven Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) and several outside the South imposed poll taxes.

The poll tax mechanism varied state by state; in Alabama, the poll tax was cumulative, meaning that a man had to pay all taxes from age twenty-one onward to vote. In other states, poll taxes had to be paid for several years before being eligible to vote. Enforcement of poll tax laws was patchy. Election officials had the discretion of whether or not to ask for a voter's poll tax receipt. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the poll tax in the 1937 Breedlove v. Suttles and again affirmed it in 1951 by a federal court in Butler v. Thompson.

Poll taxes began to wane in popularity despite judicial affirmations, with five Southern states keeping poll taxes by 1962 (Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia). The poll tax was officially prohibited in 1964 by the Twenty-fourth Amendment. Like poll taxes, literacy tests were primarily used to disenfranchise Black and poor voters in the South. Black literacy rates lagged behind white literacy rates until 1940. Literacy tests were applied unevenly: property owners were often exempt, as well as those who would have had the right to vote (or whose ancestors had the right to vote) in 1867, before the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Some states exempted veterans of the American Civil War from tests. Literacy tests varied in difficulty, with Blacks often given more rigorous tests.

In Macon County, Alabama, in the late 1950s, for example, at least twelve whites who had not finished elementary school passed the literacy test, while several college-educated Blacks failed. Literacy tests were prevalent outside the South as well, as they were seen as keeping society's undesirables (the poor, immigrants, or the uninformed) from voting; twenty states still had literacy tests after World War II, including seven Southern states, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. A 1970 Amendment to the Voting Rights Act prohibited using literacy tests to determine voting eligibility.  1998, Florida created the Florida Central Voter File to combat vote fraud documented in the 1997 Miami mayoral election. Many people were purged from voter registration lists because their names were similar to those of convicted felons, who were not allowed to vote at that time under Florida law.

According to the Palm Beach Post, Blacks accounted for 88% of those removed from the rolls but were only about 11% of Florida's voters. However, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, nearly 89% of felons convicted in Florida are Black; therefore, a purge of convicted felons could be expected to include a disproportionately high number of Blacks. The Post added, "A review of state records, internal e-mails of DBT employees, and testimony before the civil rights commission and an elections task force showed no evidence that minorities were specifically targeted." 

In 2008, more than 98,000 registered Georgia voters were removed from the roll of voters because of discrepancies in computer records of their identification information. Some 4,500 voters had to prove their citizenship to regain their voting rights.  Georgia was challenged to request more Social Security-based verification than any other state, with about 2 million voters. An attorney involved in the lawsuit said that since the letters were mailed within 90 days of the election, Georgia violated federal law. The director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Georgia Voting Rights Project said, "They are systematically using these lists and matching them and using those matches to send these letters out to voters. They're using a systematic purging procedure expressly prohibited by federal laws if eligible people are being challenged and purged properly".

Elise Shore, a regional attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), agreed the letters violate two federal laws against voter purging within 90 days of the election. People are being targeted and told they are non-citizens, including both naturalized citizens and U.S.-born citizens," said Shore. "They're being told they're not eligible to vote, based on information in a database that hasn't been checked and approved by the Department of Justice (DOJ), and that we know has flaws." Secretary of State Karen Handel denied that removing voters' names was an instance of voter suppression. 

Between November 2015 and early 2016, over 120,000 voters were dropped from rolls in Brooklyn, New York.  Officials have stated that the purge was a mistake and that those dropped represented a "broad cross-section" of the electorate. However, a WNYC analysis found that the purge had disproportionately affected majority-Hispanic districts. The board announced that it would reinstate all voters in time for the 2016 congressional primary.  The Board of Elections subsequently suspended the Republican appointee in connection to the purge but kept her Democratic counterpart.   In 2016, Black Voters Matter (BVM) was formed to offset decades of disenfranchisement of Black and poor citizens.

Stacey Abrams, an attorney who was the Democratic party's nominee in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, became the first Black female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the United States. She lost to Brian Kemp in an election marked by accusations that Kemp engaged in voter suppression.  In 2019, presiding circuit court Judge Paul V. Malloy of Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, removed 234,000 voters from the statewide rolls, ruling that state law compelled him to do so.  In 2020, Abrams and BVM were critical in getting voter turnout to elect Joe Biden as Georgia's choice for President and elect a white-Jewish and Black Democratic candidate to the senate. In 2021, Texas and other southern states are attacking voting rights with state legislation to prevent nonwhite and poor citizens from the right to vote.

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