If It’s Not Jim Crow, What Is It?avril 6, 2021
Other Southern states embraced changes like voter registration, which had a stark and negative effect on turnout, made worse by the discretion given to registrars.
According to the North Carolina law of 1889, for instance, registrars, appointed indirectly by the Democratic legislature, could require that a voter prove “as near as may be” his “age, occupation, place of birth and place of residency … by such testimony, under oath, as may be satisfactory to the registrar.”
Democrats, he notes, “employed this law to deny the vote to white and Black Republicans and Populists in the early 1890s.” Louisiana lawmakers passed a registration law in 1896. That year, 95.6 percent of Black adult males appeared on the voter rolls. Two years later, at which point voters were required to have reregistered, 9.5 percent of Blacks were listed.
In addition to registration requirements, there were the now-infamous literacy tests. In Virginia, a potential voter had to read a section of the state or federal constitution — and persuade the registrar that he understood the words — in order to qualify to vote. Mississippi’s similar requirement came with an “understanding clause” that allowed a would-be voter to cast a ballot only if he could understand the text read to him.
A recently published paper by the political scientists Luke Keele, William Cubbison and Ismail White on the use of the understanding clause in Louisiana during the 1950s underscores the impact of voting laws that rely on discretion for their effect. “These results highlight that voting restrictions that give local officials greater authority to deny the franchise may be particularly susceptible to discriminatory outcomes,” they note.
Rounding out these legal restrictions on the right to vote were poll taxes. On their own, they may not have had the decisive impact that critics at the time attributed to them, but in conjunction with other measures, they worked to discourage many Southern men, Black and white, from even trying to vote. “Although the $1 to $2 levies did not seem high to middle-class convention delegates and legislators,” Kousser writes, “they represented a significant charge to many inhabitants of the nation’s economic backwater region.”
For as much as Southern lawmakers were often explicit about their intentions and aims (“Discrimination!,” declared Carter Glass, who as a state senator helped craft Virginia’s 1901 Constitution. “Why, that is precisely what we propose; that, exactly, is what this convention was elected for.”), they also knew that they had to mask these laws and provisions in the language of neutrality. The authors of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 even added an addendum to this effect:
Every provision in the Mississippi Constitution applies equally, and without discrimination whatever, to both the white and Negro races. Any assumption, therefore, that the purpose of the framers of the Constitution was ulterior, and dishonest, is gratuitous and cannot be sustained.
One of Kousser’s conclusions is that 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.
This brings us back to the Georgia law. To the extent that it plays at neutrality while placing burdens on specific groups of voters on a partisan (and inescapably racial) basis, it is, at least, Jim Crow-adjacent. And as my Times colleagues Nick Corasaniti and Reid Epstein wrote last week, there are key provisions that fit this bill.