How Laws Suppressed the Black Vote

Black voting rights have remained under attack for nearly 150 years, restricting democracy and restraining Black progress. Although Black voters have consistently challenged the system and its restrictive laws, the Black vote continues to be undermined by pervasive practices that curb fair political representation. While Black people were blatantly denied the right to vote for decades, even after their legal rights were established, Black Americans today remain disproportionately impacted by voter suppression.

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 remedied some of the problems faced by Black voters, the targeted suppression of the Black vote persisted long after. In the 1990s, 150,000 postcards warning voters of the consequences of voter fraud were sent to predominantly Black precincts in North Carolina and omitted information about how people who had recently relocated could vote. These postcards are widely believed to have been an attempt to discourage Black voters from participating in the upcoming historic election.

Contemporary practices used to disenfranchise Black voters include punitive voter ID laws fueled by the myth of voter fraud, reduced opportunities for early voting, and blocking potential voters from being able to register. During Stacey Abrams' gubernatorial run in Georgia, dozens of Black voters were forced off of a bus bound for the polls by county officials. Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, was later sued for putting more than 53,000 voter registration applications — most of them from minority voters — on hold prior to the election.

In the months leading up to one of the most critical presidential elections in history, voter suppression must be adequately exposed and dismantled.

The history of Black America’s complex relationship with the political realm stretches almost back to the nation’s founding. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, long before the advent of Black suffrage and just over a decade after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, enslaved Black people were given a dismal role in American politics. The Three-Fifths Compromise granted states with enslaved populations more political representation by recognizing each enslaved person as three-fifths of a person to be counted toward a state’s population. The more enslaved people a particular state contained, the greater political representation they gained. The Three-Fifths Compromise single-handedly relegated Black people to the fringes of American politics while simultaneously preserving the institution of slavery. This compromise denied Black suffrage and Black humanity while allowing white people to politically capitalize on Black suffering.

The passage of the 15th Amendment provided the legal foundation for Black suffrage (for men, at least), regardless of the previous condition of servitude. However, emancipated Black citizens across the country were largely denied their right to vote by grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests that barred Black people from political engagement in elections. As the 15th Amendment remained unenforced, these racist and unconstitutional practices became legally-backed Jim Crow laws that persisted into the 20th century. In the 1930s, a disillusioned Georgia man shared his experience with attempting to exercise his constitutional right. “Do you know I've never voted in my life?” he stated. “Can’t have a voice in my own government.”

On Bloody Sunday in 1965, Selma, Alabama saw white outrage over the pursuit of Black suffrage reach an ugly boiling point. A brutal assault of nonviolent Civil Rights activists demonstrated not only the unforgettable self-restraint of Black people who sought to defend their constitutional right but also highlighted the intense and bitter spite of white people who yearned to vanquish Black political participation. The Black vote finally materialized after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed voter suppression instruments such as literacy tests. Before 1965, less than a quarter of Black people were registered to vote. By 1969, just over 60 percent were registered voters.

Today, Black suffrage remains a politically tumultuous battlefield. The Voting Rights Act itself is not permanent, but was renewed in 2006 and faces potential expiration in 12 years if it is not extended. New tactics to disenfranchise Black voters have emerged in recent years and continue to exert a significant, negative force on Black voters. The Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, giving states the green light to implement tough voter ID laws which discriminate by singling out individuals who lack proper identification. Black Americans are nearly twice as likely than their white peers to lack such identification. Members of the GOP defend strict voter ID laws by appealing to fears of election rigging, although the idea that America is facing rampant voter fraud has been repeatedly debunked. In Tennessee — which has some of the strictest voter ID laws in the country — a handgun carry permit can be used to cast a ballot, but a student ID has been deemed insufficient identification. Proponents of the law claim student IDs are more susceptible to fraud, though this claim remains unsubstantiated. When the state’s voter turnout rate for voters of color increased by double digits, a GOP bill designed to shut down voter registration drives followed suit.

Early voting, which makes it easier for minorities to vote, has also taken a hit in recent years. In Ohio, Black people were twice as likely to vote early than white people in 2012, and in North Carolina, 70 percent of Black voters relied on early voting to participate in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Subsequently in 2016, Ohio’s cuts to early voting and same day registration were upheld by the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2018, a North Carolina law similarly reduced the number of places a person could cast an early vote. Gerrymandering also remains a catalyst for voter suppression. Following the 2010 census, Republicans in Michigan and Ohio drew voting maps so egregiously influenced by party interests that lower federal courts ruled that they violated the First and 14th Amendments before the Supreme Court upheld the state laws.

If the Black vote wasn’t a powerful vehicle for obtaining political standing and social progress, political adversaries wouldn’t work so hard to suppress voter turnout rates. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey told the story of a 50-year-old man who had never voted but planned to cast his first-ever vote in the upcoming election. Otis Moss Sr. woke up early and walked six miles to the polls, only to find out he’d come to the wrong location. He walked another six miles and encountered the same problem. Finally, he arrived at a third poll, and was told he was too late — the poll had just closed. He died before he had a chance to cast a vote in the next election. To ensure that voter suppression does not become the champion of the next election, we must all approach the polls with the intentionality, dedication, and gusto of Otis Moss Sr.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.