Legal Disenfranchisement


A 1945 Texas Poll Tax Receipt; Source: The African American Lectionary

Three historic actions set the stage for legally disenfranchising African American voters:  

  • The end of Reconstruction with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise removed federal troops from the Confederate states in 1877. This meant Black voters had to depend on states and the local police for support, which was seldom given, and so these voters were exposed to violence.
  • The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Cruikshank in 1875 stated that the 14th Amendment applied only to state action, not to individual action. For example, “state action” would include written laws barring voting participation on the basis of skin color, and "individual action" would include KKK members lurking around the polls intimidating African American voters. This required disenfranchised voters to seek remedies in state courts under state laws, not in federal  courts.
  • The Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Reese in 1876 allowed states to create legal barriers to voting that applied to all voters (like poll taxes and grandfather clauses), but they disproportionately affected the Black community both by the laws themselves as well as the way they were unevenly applied from person to person. 

Between 1890 and 1908, 10 of the 11 former Confederate states ratified constitutions or amendments that made voter registration and voting more difficult for African Americans.


Poll Taxes

Poll taxes required voters to pay a fee in order to vote. Georgia began using poll taxes to limit African American voting in 1871. The taxes were generally $1-2 per year, which was more than most Black sharecroppers tenant farmers who give a part of each crop as rent could pay.  This was also used against poor white sharecroppers.

In 1877, Georgia created cumulative poll taxes that required potential voters to pay back taxes for all years when they could have voted but did not.

In 1902, Virginia adopted a constitutional requirement that any voter who wanted to vote in 1904 had to prove that he had paid the $1.50 poll tax in each of the preceding years he was eligible to vote.

By 1904, every former Confederate state had adopted some form of poll tax to limit access to the polls for African Americans.

The poll tax was an effective tool of voter suppression. Estimates suggest that the Georgia poll tax reduced overall turnout by 16-28%, and African American turnout by about 50%. Texas adopted the poll tax in 1903, reducing the number of Black voters in the state from about 100,000 in the 1890s to 5,000 in 1906.

Poll taxes connected to voting were not prohibited until passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964.

Literacy Tests

Literacy tests for voting targeted African American voters in the South. This was an effective tactic for limiting the Black vote, since approximately 40-60% of the African American population in the South in the late 19th Century could not read.

Some literacy tests were implicit, meaning a voter had to be able to read instructions and the ballot on their own, without help, in order to vote. This barrier eliminated the votes of people who could not read by making the voting process impossible for them.  

Secret ballots  A method of voting that ensures that all votes are cast in secret, so that the voter is not influenced by any other individual, and at the time of voting no one else knows who the voter chose were another implicit literacy test, since voters who could not read were not allowed to ask others for help with completing the ballot.

Explicit literacy tests required people to demonstrate an ability to read before voting. For example, in Mississippi, a voter could be asked to read a section of the state Constitution and explain it.

Black voters received difficult or technical sections while white voters might be asked to read only one line.  Some officials asked questions that tested prior knowledge of the constitution rather than the ability to read and understand English. Local voting officials determined who took which version of the tests, as well as who passed or failed.

Literacy tests were often accompanied by a “grandfather” clause that protected most whites from the effect of the law. These clauses excused anyone who had been able to vote before the adoption of the 14th or 15th Amendments (white males), or any descendant of that person, from taking the literacy test.

Literacy tests for voting were finally prohibited by provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Restrictive Voter Registration

Southern states kept African Americans from the polls by making voter registration for them difficult. Voter registration laws required frequent re-registration, long-term residency, registration at inconvenient times (e.g., planting season, during work hours, etc.) and burdensome paperwork.

Appointment boards in each county could register voters who were veterans or descendants of earlier voters (whites).  Boards could approve voters on a case-by-case basis. In practice, they enfranchised whites and rejected African Americans.

White-only Primaries

White-only primary elections were another method used to disenfranchise Black voters.  

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Democratic Party dominated southern politics. The only competitive voting was in the primaries, so excluding African American voters from primaries was an efficient way to disenfranchise them.

By the 1920s, political party rules that excluded Black women and men and other marginalized Social marginalization happens when a group of people are denied equal and adequate opportunity to determine their treatment by the members of the broader society. It usually includes the lack of representation, recognition of rights and equal redistribution of resources and services communities from participating in party primaries were the norm throughout the South. Challenges to white-only primaries were met by arguments that general elections were the only state-mandated elections, while parties themselves could conduct their own primaries.

Texas’ infamous white primary system ended after the 1944 Smith v. Allwright Supreme Court decision ruled that white primaries as established by Texas were unconstitutional.

Most other southern states ended their white primaries after this decision, but kept other laws aimed at keeping African Americans from the polls.