A Brief History of Voter Suppression in America

Voter suppression is a grand old American tradition that goes back to the beginning of the nation.

Thus punditry and news articles that claim America’s “voter suppression” problem is new and unprecedented are wrong. Voter suppression is an old problem in America that is getting worse, not a new concept.

Hence, one of the best ways to combat today’s voter suppression is study the history. The history can show us how voter suppression works and how to fight it.

So what is Voter Suppression Anyway?

I define voter suppression as any organized effort to prevent or discourage people from voting.

Voter suppression can take many forms. Historically, voter suppression has included violence, restrictive laws, gerrymandering, threats, and disenfranchisement.

In more recent decades, most voter suppression efforts are passive attempts to discourage specific kinds of voters from casting their ballots. Many of those efforts involve seemingly innocuous actions such as closing or moving polling places, or asking for IDs.

Recently, there have been some efforts to ban or restrict some kinds of voting. For example, former President Donald J. Trump’s (R-Florida) attacks on mail-in voting and state laws banning mail-in elections and ballot drop boxes and Sunday voting.

Hence, voter suppression can be hard to define. However, like pornography, most of us can identify voter suppression when we see it.

Voter Suppression Begins

Ironically, the first American state to experiment with widespread voting also tested voter suppression.

In 1776, the year of the Declaration of the Independence. New Jersey adopted a constitution that gave the vote to “all inhabitants of this colony.” However, that Constitution included a voter suppression caveat.

The Constitution restricting voting to those worth over fifty pounds. Thus, only people with money could vote. Intriguingly, the document did not mention gender, so women could vote.

In 1790, state legislatures rewrote the constitution to make it illegal for married women who met the financial qualifications to vote. Since most New Jersey women were married, the law effectively barred most women from voting.

In 1807, the legislature went farther restricting voting to taxpaying white male citizens. The legislature designed the restriction to hurt the Federalist Party and help the Republican. or Democratic-Republican Party, at the polls. The fear was that women and people of color were more likely to vote Federalist.

New Jersey was typical of most American states before the Civil War. In that era most states limited voting to white males. However, property restrictions, which were hard to enforce, disappeared by the 1830s.

Instead, laws usually restricted the vote to white males. Thus, efforts to prevent large segment of the population from voting date back to Revolutionary times.

Gerrymandering

Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry gave his name to one of the most successful and persistent voter suppression tactics in 1812.

Gerry signed a redistricting plan that drew a legislative district shaped like a salamander. Hence the terms gerrymander and gerrymandering. The purpose of the district was to keep Gerry’s Republican, or Democratic Republican Party, in control of the state legislature.

Gerrymandering is voter suppression because it denies people the right to elect representatives. For example, Gerry’s intent was to take votes away from the rival Federalist Party.

Gerrymandering suppresses votes by creating districts in which party has a majority of the vote. For example, in Wisconsin in 2018, Democrats won 53% of the votes cast for the state assembly. Yet, Democrats only won in 36% of the assembly districts, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel alleges.

Hence, they suppressed the votes of 53% of Wisconsin’s citizens. Wisconsin Republicans suppressed the Democratic vote by drawing legislative districts more likely to vote Republican. For example, white rural districts. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel estimates that 64 of Wisconsin’s 99 legislative districts lean Republican, even though the state leans Democrat.

Gerrymandering is one of the most insidious voter suppression tactics because it does not take away the vote. People still vote but their votes are meaningless.

Thus, gerrymandering discourages voting because many people correctly viewing their votes as meaningless stop casting ballots. Gerrymandering practitioners will never admit it, but one of their goals is to convince opponents not to vote.

A War against voter suppression

Strangely, voter suppression triggered a civil war in one American state: Rhode Island.

Until 1842, Rhode Island had no constitution. Instead, they governed the state under the 1663 Royal Charter. The Royal Charter required citizens to possess $134 (40 pounds) (potentially $1.73 million 2021 dollars) to vote. Thus, only the rich could vote in Rhode Island.

The Charter kept over 60% of the state’s population from voting. That enabled a small clique of corrupt politicians backed by wealthy landowners to control Rhode Island’s government. Predictably, ordinary Rhode Islanders were not happy with the status quo and revolted.

In 1841, a group of reformers held their own constitutional convention, which wrote a People’s Constitution. The People’s Constitution granted the vote to all white male residents of Rhode Island over 21 years of age. They even held a referendum which ratified the “People’s Constitution.”

However, the state government refused to recognize the People’s Constitution. Consequently, Rhode Island had two rival regimes, each claiming to be the legitimate state government. In 1842, each government held an election.

Consequently, Rhode Island two governors and two legislatures each claiming the other was illegal. The old charter government had control of the courts, which it used to arrest and imprison the constitutional lawmakers. The People’s Constitution governor Thomas Wilson Dorr organized a revolt.

Around 300 men armed with canons, participated in Dorr’s Rebellion. The revolt failed because the canons did not work. Governor Dorr fled the state, but was eventually arrested and imprisoned.

Fearing another rebellion, Rhode Island’s leaders adopted a new Constitution that allowed all native born white male citizens to vote by eliminating property requirements. However, a measure barring immigrants from voting reminded the law in Rhode Island until 1888.

I think vote suppressors in states such as Wisconsin need to understand Dorr’s Rebellion. What happens if voters in Wisconsin decide the state legislature is illegal and march on the State Capitol? Will we see a 21st Century repeat of Dorr’s rebellion with protesters facing off against the National Guard?

Such a conflict is not as far-fetched as cynics will think. Democratic Texas state legislators are defying state law to prevent the passage of what they see as voter suppression laws. Similarly, some Wisconsin residents are urging Democratic Governor Tim Evers to take action against the Republican legislature’s gerrymandering.

I think Dorr’s Rebellion shows Republican voter suppressors are playing with fire. Instead of a permanent lock on power, Republican vote suppressors are writing a recipe for violence.

Another lesson Dorr’s Rebellion teaches is that voter suppression is not always a racial issue. Both sides in Dorr’s Rebellion were white, but they were ready to kill each other over the vote. Although there was a powerful element of class warfare in Dorr’s Rebellion.

Working and middle*class Rhode Islanders revolted against the rich. Another lesson we need to remember in a country increasingly divided by income inequality.

Instead of race, voter suppression is usually about power and a minority’s willingness to keep it. Therefore, modern battles over vote suppression will not unfold along simple black-white lines, as politicians expect.

The 15th Amendment and Jim Crow

The ratification of the 15th Amendment on 3 February 1870 banned “whites only” elections and race-based voting restrictions.

The first section of the 15th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

After the 15th Amendment, vote suppressors had to get creative, which they did. Ironically, much of the racist Jim Crow system was an unintentional side effect of the 15th Amendment.

One popular Jim Crow voter suppressor tactic was the literacy test. To vote, people had to read a paragraph to the satisfaction of an election official.

The election official was usually a white Democrat who made sure any probable Republican voter or black failed the test. Since most blacks were Republicans, the system was racist. After the US Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of literacy tests in Williams v. Mississippi in 1898, they spread throughout the South.

Another tactic was the grandfather clause, which barred people whose grandfathers could not vote from voting. Since most blacks’ grandfathers were slaves, the grandfather clause kept African Americans from the polls.

Other tactics included poll taxes, levies that citizens had to pay before voting. Since most blacks could not afford to pay the poll tax, they could not vote. Moreover, white politicians often paid the poll taxes for poor whites who were willing to vote the “straight ticket.”

A final tactic was the all-white Democratic Primary. Since, the Democrats were the only party in office in most of the South. They barred blacks from politics by holding whites only primaries.

In some states, such as Texas, the whites-only Democratic primary was the only election that mattered until the 1970s. Democrats got away with this blatant discrimination by claiming they were a private organization that could make its own rules.

The 15th Amendment should teach vote suppression opponents an important lesson. If you ban one form of voter suppression, the vote suppressors will get creative. People who want to retain political power will devise new vote suppression methods.

Voter Suppression Today

In recent years, voter suppression has made a comeback with the blessing of the Republican Party. Similarly, efforts to expand the vote are gaining wide support across the country.

The comeback began in 2011, when 14 states enacted 19 voter suppression laws, the Brennan Center claims. A decade later, Republicans put voter suppression on the fast track. Between 1 January and 21 June 2021, 17 states enacted 28 laws the Brennan Center describes as voter suppression efforts.

Moreover, legislators in 48 states introduced 389 vote restriction bills in the first seven months of 2021, The Brennan Center estimates. Around 61 of those bills were moving through 18 state legislatures, and committees had heard at least 30 bills.

In contrast, they introduced around 880 bills to expand the vote in 49 state legislatures in 2021, the Brennan Center estimates. Governors in 14 states 28 of the vote expansion bills into laws. Plus, 115 more vote expansion efforts were moving through legislatures in 25 states and 45 had passed at least one state legislature chamber.

Hence, I think America’s state governments are setting the stage for conflicts similar to Dorr’s Rebellion. In Dorr’s Rebellion, voters eager to expand the franchise challenged state officials dedicated to voter suppression.

Given the passionate nature of our politics, I think such a clash is inevitable. Remember, we already saw a riot at the US Capitol in which a mob tried to stop US Senators from stealing an election from their hero former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida). What happens if an enormous mob attacks a state capitol to keep voter suppressors out of office.

Voter suppression and the conflict it creates are fixtures of American history. I think voter suppression’s long history in America is far from over. Efforts to suppress votes and the conflicts they generate will continue as long as America remains a democracy.