voting rights

Jim Crow’s Ominous Lessons on Voter Suppression

Senator Tom Watson, Georgia populist champion of Black voting — and then disenfranchisement. Photo: David Goldman/AP/Shutterstock

One of Republicans’ most virulently held positions in the debate over the restrictive voting laws their party is pushing at the state level is that it’s a “big lie” or at least a “smear” to compare those efforts to the disenfranchisement of Black voters under the Jim Crow scheme of racial apartheid in the South. Trying to argue this point is certainly an easier lift for Republicans than justifying the new voter restrictions in the first place or admitting they are largely motivated by the Trump campaign’s “big lie” of a stolen 2020 election.

But voting-rights advocates should be clear about why they consider these restrictions to be “Jim Crow in the 21st century,” as President Biden described Georgia’s new law, rather than just hurling the historical reference as an insult. Although the comparison Democrats are making is exaggerated in some respects, a look back at the historical precedents for today’s voter-suppression drive does offer some useful lessons and warning signs.

Voting protections should never be taken for granted

The last third of the 19th century in the South is often misunderstood as a quick procession from Reconstruction to Jim Crow. But in fact, there was an interim period of about 20 years after Reconstruction was abandoned in 1876 when Black Southerners voted in relatively large numbers and the segregation laws associated with Jim Crow hadn’t yet been imposed. As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie recently wrote, “One of the lessons of the South after Reconstruction is that democratic life can flourish and then erode, expand and then contract.” To put it another way, the 20th-century fight for civil and voting rights wasn’t some effort to reverse regional laws and practices that stretched back with only minor interruptions into slavery times but a battle against more recent practices that were themselves radically reactionary, not “conservative.”

Similarly, today’s federal voting protections are as fragile as those that were supposedly guaranteed during Reconstruction by the 15th Amendment, which bans racial discrimination in opportunities to vote. Within a decade of the amendment’s adoption in 1870, southern state governments had started neutralizing it with the active cooperation of federal courts.

In recent years, the federal judiciary took the lead by gutting the key enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court gave state-level voter-suppression efforts a bright-green light by eliminating the requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices obtain advance review from the Justice Department before changing their policies.

Voter suppression must be veiled

The major thrust of Bouie’s column is to answer conservative claims that Jim Crow meant blatant racial discrimination in voting, not the sort of racially discriminatory effects claimed for the current batch of state laws:

There was no statute that said, “Black people cannot vote.” Instead, Southern lawmakers spun a web of restrictions and regulations meant to catch most Blacks (as well as many whites) and keep them out of the electorate.

The reason for this indirection, which took a while and a great deal of effort to overcome, was the 15th Amendment. Other aspects of Jim Crow (e.g., the segregation of schools and other public facilities) were more blatant since they did not contravene constitutional principles as understood (or, more accurately, misunderstood) at the time. But over the years, the Supreme Court guided and accommodated southern states’ disenfranchisement efforts by killing blatantly unconstitutional measures (e.g., a flat ban on Black voting in the Texas primaries in Nixon v. Herndon) while sanctioning craftier, more indirect methods (like Grovey v. Townsend, which approved a Texas “white primary” law after the Democratic Party had been redefined as a private-membership society). So lawmakers across the South gradually adopted practices to indirectly disenfranchise Black voters, including reregistration requirements, literacy tests, and poll taxes. The fact that low-income white voters were sometimes caught in these snares was a constant source of controversy within the “white man’s party” (i.e., the Democrats).

Disenfranchisement is often about partisan politics, not just race

White Southerners didn’t necessarily become more racist between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow, though obviously racist viewpoints became crucially more dominant. The region-wide decision to disenfranchise Black voters was very much a product of partisan political calculations. Bouie describes this dynamic as a matter of the dominant conservative Democrats crushing their rivals:

Jim Crow voting restrictions were as much about partisanship as they were about race, with Southern Democrats targeting the two groups outside of plantation-dominated areas, Blacks and low-income whites, who powered their Republican and Populist opposition.

But I’d say it was more complicated — and alarming — than a conservative triumph over Black and white progressives of varying degrees. White populists were often at the forefront of the disenfranchisement crusade after having championed Black voting rights earlier. This was nowhere more evident than in the career of Georgia’s Tom Watson, a regional and national leader of the People’s Party. During the 1890s, Watson consistently defended Black voting rights and based his entire appeal on a biracial coalition of farmers determined to fight the domination of national and state governments by banks, railroads, and other wealthy interests. But soon after the turn of the century, Watson (and many other southern populists) decided populism could prevail among white voters only if racial issues were taken off the table through Black voters’ disenfranchisement.

So the friends of Black voting rights became their bitterest enemies in a process whereby ideological debates were worked out within the all-white Democratic Party, whose members felt free to disagree on other topics once white supremacy had been assured. That shows the eternal power of political calculations even in a one-party system.

Today, it’s not at all essential to show that Republican pols who engage in voter suppression aimed at Black or Latino citizens are subjectively racist in order to describe their policies as racist. Perhaps they simply want to win elections and know (particularly in the Deep South) that reducing minority voting levels is a lot easier than breaking the attachment of minority voters to the Democratic Party. This dynamic shows why the loss of the bipartisan commitment to voting rights that existed as recently as 2006 (when George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension of the VRA before his Supreme Court appointees crucially undermined it) was so very unfortunate and why it will be so hard to re-create. As long as voting rights are considered strictly a Democratic issue, Republicans will return again and again to disenfranchisement measures.

Assaults on voting rights can be disguised as “reforms”

Today’s Republicans invariably justify voter-suppression efforts as “election reforms” designed to ensure “ballot security” and other protections against “voter fraud,” generally without proof that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. This too was a common rationale for the disenfranchisement of Black voters in the Jim Crow South on grounds that white political factions sought to trounce one another by making inappropriate inducements (illegal or not) to Black voters, as C. Vann Woodward notes in his ground-breaking 1955 book, The Strange History of Jim Crow:

[D]isenfranchisement was also presented as a progressive reform, the sure means of purging Southern elections of the corruption that disgraced them. The disgrace and public shame of this corruption were more widely and keenly appreciated than the circuitous and paradoxical nature of the proposed reform. To one Virginian, however, it did seem that disenfranchising the Negroes “to prevent the Democratic election officials from stealing their votes” would be “to punish the man who has been injured” — a topsy-turvy justice at best. In no mood for paradoxes, Southerners generally accepted Negro disfranchisement as a reform, without taking second thought.

Beware the “reformer” who wants to purge voter rolls just in case there’s fraud going on.

Voting-rights violations can be extremely difficult to reverse

Even though the disenfranchisement of Black voters and other Jim Crow practices in the South took a while to consolidate, once that happened the system became increasingly entrenched and fiercely defended, as though it had come down from Heaven on stone tablets (as, indeed, many southern white religious leaders suggested). The longer disenfranchisement lasted, the harder it was to dislodge, particularly since southern Democrats threatened to leave the national party at every hint of civil-rights legislation — and many ultimately did in the 1960s and ’70s.

Where Black voting survived (outside of the so-called Black Belt of rural and often majority-Black counties, it sometimes did so in limited form), it was treated as a perennial threat. Throughout the Jim Crow era, every racist candidate could recite a litany of fears surrounding the “bloc vote” (a term used for Black voters, who were monolithic in support of even marginally progressive candidates, as one might have expected from voters denied so many basic rights). The idea persists today in conservative attacks on the “Democratic plantation” where Black voters are allegedly “enslaved.”

The important thing to understand overall is that monstrous injustices often don’t occur overnight and aren’t advertised as such. As Bouie writes, “The thing about Jim Crow is that it wasn’t ‘Jim Crow’ until, one day, it was.” And if voting rights aren’t rigorously respected, one day they may not exist.

Jim Crow’s Ominous Lessons on Voter Suppression