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Attempts At Disenfranchisement

For a hundred years the legislatures of southern and border states used a succession of different types of legislation to disenfranchise African Americans and the members of other minority groups. These laws were challenged in court, leading to a steady stream of decisions that restricted the ability of legislatures to limit VOTING RIGHTS. Beginning in the 1960s, the federal government became actively involved in ending discriminatory voting practices. In addition, the federal government set new procedures for voter registration, which made it easier to register and vote.

Despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, African Americans had difficulty exercising their right to vote. In some states, public officials ignored the Fifteenth Amendment, and in other areas, groups such as the KU KLUX KLAN used TERRORISM to prevent African Americans from voting. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down congressional attempts to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment in United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. (2 Otto) 214, 23 L. Ed. 563 (1875). The Court reversed itself in Ex Parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 4 S. Ct. 152, 28 L. Ed. 274 (1884), yet in the 1880s Congress showed little interest in securing African American voting rights.

Southern and border states realized, however, that the federal government had the power to ensure the enfranchisement of African Americans. Therefore, these states sought ways of excluding African Americans from the political process; such methods appeared neutral but were employed solely against persons of color.

Grandfather Clause The most blatant official means of preventing African Americans from voting was the GRANDFATHER CLAUSE. First enacted by Mississippi in 1890, this method soon spread throughout the southern and border states. Typically these clauses required literacy tests for all voters whose ancestors had not been entitled to vote prior to 1866. This meant that African Americans were subject to literacy tests arbitrarily administered by white officials, whereas illiterate whites were exempted from this requirement because their ancestors could vote in 1866. In 1915, the Supreme Court struck down Oklahoma's grandfather clause in Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 35 S. Ct. 926, 59 L. Ed. 1340.

Rock the Vote and Motor Voter

The campaign to pass the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973gg et seq.), popularly known as the "motor-voter" law, was led by the Motor Voter Coalition (<www.motorvoter.com>), an umbrella organization of nonpartisan groups. Some of the organizations that participated, such as the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had a long history of promoting voting rights. Many secretaries of state, the state officials who administer elections, also supported the NVRA.

The most publicity, however, was attracted by the Rock the Vote organization. Rock the Vote (<www.rockthevote.com>) is a non-partisan group based in Los Angeles, California, that is funded primarily by contributions from the popular music industry. Rock the Vote was established in 1990 to fight music CENSORSHIP and promote the FIRST AMENDMENT through the registration of voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Soon, however, Rock the Vote became a vocal supporter of the motor-voter bill, which simplifies voter registration and relaxes residency requirements.

Rock the Vote enlisted the help of many famous popular singers, rock bands, and rap artists to encourage the passage of the motor-voter bill. The rock group R.E.M. even included a postcard with one of its recordings that could be sent by a listener to Congress in support of the bill. President BILL CLINTON, who benefited from Rock the Vote's 1992 drive to register young voters, acknowledged the organization's efforts at the bill-signing ceremony on May 20, 1993.

White Primary After the grandfather clause was ruled unconstitutional, southern states adopted the WHITE PRIMARY as a way of excluding African Americans from voting in a meaningful way. The DEMOCRATIC PARTY, in many states, adopted a rule excluding African Americans from party membership. The state legislatures worked in concert with the party, closing the party primaries to everyone except party members. Because nomination by the Democratic Party was tantamount to election in these essentially one-party states, African Americans were effectively disenfranchised. The Supreme Court, in Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S. Ct. 757, 88 L. Ed. 987 (1944), struck down the white primary as a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment's prohibition against voting discrimination based on race.

Literacy Tests The end of grandfather clauses and white primaries led to the use of other exclusionary tactics. Many states relied on literacy tests that, despite superficial neutrality, were administered in a racially discriminatory manner. White people rarely had to take the test, even if their literacy was questionable. However, because the Constitution had left the determination of voting qualifications to the states and the literacy tests were on their face racially neutral, the Supreme Court refused to strike them down. Ultimately, Congress abolished literacy tests through the VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.).

Poll Tax Another less common means of preventing African Americans from voting was the poll tax. At the time the Constitution was adopted, poll taxes were used as a legitimate means of raising revenue. By the 1850s poll taxes had disappeared, but they were revived in the early twentieth century by states seeking to exclude African Americans from the political process. The tax generally amounted to $2 per election, an amount large enough to deter most persons of color, as well as poor whites, from voting.

On its face, the poll tax was racially neutral. The Supreme Court initially upheld the tax in Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277, 58 S. Ct. 205, 82 L. Ed. 252 (1937), but over time it became clear that it was being used in a racially discriminatory manner. The Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1963, abolished the use of the poll tax in federal elections. In 1966, the Supreme Court, in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 86 S. Ct. 1079, 16 L. Ed. 2d 169, struck down the use of poll taxes in state and local elections, ruling that such taxes violated the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.

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