“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Shelby County v. Holder (2013).
In the Reconstruction Era immediately following the U.S. Civil War, Black voters in the South were able to participate in federal elections in 1868 for the first time. During this period, these new voters received an umbrella to protect them from the rainstorm of racism. This newfound access led to a level of political representation that Black voters in the South have not experienced since.
For example, between 1868 and 1877, Louisiana had a Black Governor and three Black Lieutenant Governors. From 1870 to 1876, Mississippi had a Black Lieutenant Governor and two Black U.S. Senators.
However, the end of Reconstruction in 1877 also meant the end of protection for Black voters in the South and the beginning of racially fueled voter suppression. Unsurprisingly, there has not been a Black person elected to any statewide office in Mississippi or Louisiana since the Reconstruction era despite the fact that the two states have the highest percentage of African Americans in the country.
Many of the voter suppression tactics that have resurged across the South since Shelby County v. Holder (2013) – a Supreme Court decision which invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act – can be directly traced to the tactics implemented in the Jim Crow South after the end of Reconstruction. On Juneteenth, which commemorates the freeing of former slaves in Texas over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, we take a look at the ongoing legacy of voter suppression affecting Black voters in the United States.
In the late 1800’s, several Southern states amended their constitutions to disenfranchise previously registered Black voters. For example, in Louisiana in 1896 there were 164,088 white registered voters, and 130,344 Black registered voters. Yet in 1900, the first registration year after a new state constitution with new voter registration qualifications was adopted, there were 125,437 white registered voters and only 5,320 Black registered voters. Similarly, in Mississippi the number of Black registered voters decreased from 52,705 in 1876 to 3,573 in 1898 – without a corresponding decrease in the state’s Black voting-eligible population.
Today, states eliminate the number of Black registered voters through voter purges. For example, in Wisconsin, while the Black voting population comprises only 5.7% of the state’s total electorate, over one-third – approximately 35% – of the voter purge notices mailed to voters in 2019 went to the two counties where the vast majority of Wisconsin’s Black voters reside, Milwaukee and Dane. Milwaukee and Dane County account for 74.6% of Wisconsin’s Black voters and Black voters make up 17.45% of the counties’ electorate. The same is true in Georgia, where the Secretary of State routinely purges voters simply because they have not voted recently, which particularly impacts minority voters in the state.
Voter registration drives are a crucial means to combat this issue in Black communities, but these drives will be eliminated or significantly curtailed this year due to the pandemic. To alleviate these difficulties, all states should offer expanded voter registration options, including online voter registration and same-day voter registration to ensure that Black voters are registered ahead of the November election.
Felony disenfranchisement laws also have their root in the explicitly racially discriminatory policies of Jim Crow. For example, Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law was included in the 1868 state constitution and in the state’s Black Codes, a series of racist laws used to criminalize previously enslaved Black people. Similarly, Alabama’s felon disenfranchisement law was first put into Alabama's constitution in 1901 during a constitutional convention held for the purpose of "establish[ing] white supremacy."
To this day, felony disenfranchisement laws have the undeniable effect of diminishing the political power of Black communities. 2.2 million (over one third) of voters disfranchised through these laws are Black. Nationwide, one in every 13 Black adults cannot vote because of a felony conviction; while 1 in 56 non-Black voters are disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction. In three states (Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia), more than one in five Black adults is disenfranchised because of these laws.
Voter Wait Times
According to the Brennan Center report on the “Racial Wait Gap,” over the past five years, Latino and Black voters were more likely than white voters to wait in the longest of lines on Election Day: some 6% of Latino voters and 7% percent of Black voters reported waiting 30 minutes or longer to vote, surpassing the acceptable threshold for wait times set by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, compared with only 4.1% of white voters. This is another racial disparity faced by minority voters across America. States must act to ensure that voters in Black and Brown neighborhoods do not experience longer wait times than voters in predominantly white areas.
States like Texas base their criteria for closing polling places in part, on traffic at each voting site, which translates to disproportionate polling location closures in areas with predominantly Latino and Black residents, who participate in elections at a lower rate than White Texans. As a result, voters in Latino and Black communities have less places to vote and longer wait times.
Strict voter ID laws have similarly been shown to have a racially discriminatory effect on voters. Prior to a successful challenge by Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and partners to Texas’s voter ID law, the state disenfranchised over 600,000 registered voters who did not have the types of ID Texas’s law demanded. The types of ID required purposefully left out large swaths of the population. For instance, a state license to carry a handgun, which may be legally obtained by some non-U.S. citizens, was a permissible form of identification, while a student ID or even a Veterans’ Administration ID was not. States must act now to loosen voter ID restrictions to ensure that Black voters are not disenfranchised.
As the country celebrates Juneteenth, Congress and state governments alike cannot assure Black people that their voices are being heard without ensuring that Black people’s votes count. This includes restoring the Voting Rights Act, federal protection against voter purges, the end of felon disenfranchisement, the elimination of the “Racial Wait Gap” and the end of discriminatory voter ID laws. Black lives will not matter in this country until Black votes also matter.