The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voter suppression started way before Jim Crow. It’s a longstanding American tradition.

For two and a half centuries, people have justified Black disenfranchisement in the name of ‘unity’

Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) is placed into the back of a patrol car after being arrested at the Capitol on Thursday. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

The Georgia legislature has passed a law that would restrict access to voting, part of a nationwide push among Republicans to curtail ballot access. Hundreds of proposals are winding their way through state legislatures to limit early or mail-in voting, impose identification requirements, limit opportunities to register, and purge voter rolls of those who haven’t cast a ballot recently. Donald Trump’s loss to President Biden and his false claims of voter fraud may have prompted this immediate push, but it’s just the latest wave of efforts to restrict voting, dating back to the 2000s.

The basic impulse — for one group to respond to electoral losses by trying to reduce the electorate — has been part of U.S. democracy since its founding. Studies of disenfranchisement suggest that those who attempt it are usually looking to help their party. But whether they succeed depends on institutional, organizational and ideological factors that vary considerably across time and place.

What’s happening today is both different from — and similar to — Jim Crow. Here’s how.

Disenfranchisement is as old as the U.S.

In the 50 years following the American Revolution, free Blacks across the country were stripped of the right to vote. By the 1830s, to vote in most of the United States, a resident had to be free, White, male and at least 21.

Reconstruction rolled back these limitations, expanding voting rights to almost all male citizens. But just a generation later, Southern Democrats all but eliminated Southern Black men’s (and eventually, women’s) voting rights. Other groups have also gained and then lost the right to vote. For instance, in revolutionary New Jersey, legally independent women could vote, a right stripped away in 1807. Until the early 20th century, noncitizen immigrants could vote in many states. But more than anything else, Jim Crow shapes public discourse about voter suppression.

Jim Crow redux?

We can find enough similarities between Jim Crow and today’s state legislative proposals to justify the analogy. Today’s restrictions disproportionately target non-White voters. And although these bills have been introduced across the country, Southern states are pursuing them especially eagerly, having been loosed from the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court struck down in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder.

The differences are at least as important. Jim Crow was never exclusively about economics. But in the postbellum South’s political economy, the White planter and business classes had vastly more to lose if they lost political power. Many employers today prefer Republicans’ labor and tax policies, and for years, many corporate employers backed the American Legislative Exchange Council’s model voter ID laws. But today’s Southern economy depends far less on all-but-free agricultural labor, greatly lowering the material stakes of elections. In the 19th century, those attempting to suppress the vote looked to corporations and “the business men of the North” for support. Today, their opponents are looking for — and in some cases, finding — corporate allies.

What’s more, our era has a radically different legal and organizational landscape. Even after Shelby County, the United States in 2021 has a far more robust voting rights jurisprudence than existed in the 1890s. Black Southerners then had few reliable and powerful allies against disenfranchisement. Today, Black activists, officeholders and voters are core parts of the Democratic Party across the country. And a thick network of organizations will litigate, lobby and campaign to prevent or overcome voter suppression.

That’s why restrictive voting laws haven’t reduced turnout by much. Today’s laws drain resources and energy that could be used elsewhere and make voting harder. But their effects are limited party because of opposition by organizations with much stronger tools, legal and otherwise, than ever before.

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Bipartisan disenfranchisement?

There’s another key difference. Disenfranchisement’s success generally depends on whether those attempting it can persuade bipartisan audiences to support the effort. Often, their rationales draw on racist or sexist ideologies or claims that voting obstacles will deliver a higher “quality” voter.

At other times, disenfranchisers have argued that if the other party accepts voting restrictions, it would lower the political temperature. As early as 1780, proponents of Black disenfranchisement argued that Black exclusion was needed for national unity because White Southerners would never consent to a Union in which Black men were citizens. This argument gained prominence during the antebellum era. In the early 20th century, Republican presidents supported Jim Crow in the name of reducing heated regional animosities.

Today’s Republicans have been arguing for restrictive laws, emphasizing such things as electoral integrity, restoring “lost faith” in the electoral system and advancing national reconciliation after the 2020 election. But Democratic officeholders haven’t been taking the bait. That’s true despite the fact that for years, majorities of both parties’ voters expressed concern over (nearly nonexistent) fraud. Democratic politicians who in the past might have supported measures framed as restoring electoral integrity won’t do so for what has been widely denounced since the 2010s as a renewal of Jim Crow. The analogy might not be perfect, but it’s close enough for its real purpose, protecting voting rights.

Limiting the voting wars

All this means the “voting wars” will continue. Republicans will restrict ballot access where they can, and Democrats will fight in court and elsewhere to stop them.

Here’s where the comparison to Jim Crow is most valuable. In 1890, just as legislators across the country were considering new restrictions on voting, congressional Republicans proposed an alternative vision of how elections ought to operate. Their proposal was far from perfect, but it probably would have made it much harder to use race as a reason to prevent Black people from registering and voting. The voting wars would have continued, but within a much circumscribed range in which Black votes were protected.

Mitch McConnell is wrong. Here’s the filibuster’s ‘racial history.’

The bill passed the House, but only after Republicans abolished that chamber’s filibuster. The Republican-controlled Senate considered doing the same to stop a filibuster that threatened to kill the bill. But centrist Republicans abandoned filibuster reform, and with it, voting rights. They argued that national reconciliation had to take precedence.

Democrats face a similar choice today.

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David A. Bateman (@DavidAlexBatema) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University and the author of “Disenfranchising Democracy: Constructing the Electorate in the United States, United Kingdom, and France” (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and co-author of “Southern Nation: Congress and White Supremacy After Reconstruction” (Princeton University Press, 2018).

Read more:

What the rise and fall of Jim Crow laws can teach today’s voting rights advocates

What might happen if Democrats succeed in expanding voting? California has some answers.

The Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act case could gut civil rights protections. Then what?

Stacey Abrams’s success in Georgia builds on generations of Black women’s organizing