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We have a special treat today with a guest blog from Barbara Simons, an eminent computer scientist who is on the Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. (More on Barbara: her bio.) She has an excellent account of part of the story about where voter registration came from, and why it is controversial that U.S. citizens must proactively request permission to vote, and then pass muster w.r.t. eligibility requirements as evaluated by an election official.  The controversy, in a nutshell, is that registration can be a way of preventing people from voting, including via the practice of disenfranchising felons.  So where did the practice of registration, and the controversy, come from? Barbara: take it away …

[Ed. Note:  The following commentary from Barbara Simons incorporates for referential, historical, and explanatory purposes only quotations that by any standard today would be considered controversial, inappropriate, and simply reprehensible.  They are only quotes pulled from history to explain the point and are not the opinions or positions of Ms. Simons, the TrustTheVote Project, or the OSDV Foundation.]

Felon disenfranchisement was introduced in the South after the Civil War as a way of disenfranchising the newly freed slaves. Southern whites even invented new felonies that were applied almost exclusively to African Americans. Here are some quotes from that era.

From a Mississippi Supreme Court decision upholding the state’s disenfranchisement law (Ratliff v. Beale): “The [constitutional] convention swept the circle of expedients to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race.  By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependence, this race had acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, of temperament and of character, which clearly distinguished it, as a race, from that of the whites — a patient docile people, but careless, landless, and migratory within narrow limits, without aforethought, and its criminal members given rather to furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of the whites.  Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.”

The following is from John Field Bunting, who introduced disenfranchisement legislation in Alabama in 1901: “The crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify sixty percent of the Negroes.” Perhaps the bluntest acknowledgment of the purpose of the felon disenfranchisement laws was provided by Carter Glass, a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1902.  Glass stated that Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement scheme

… will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than 5 years, so that in no single county will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.

The end of Reconstruction marked the beginning of disenfranchisement for the newly freed slaves.  In the South during the Jim Crow era that followed, African Americans were prevented from registering by a combination of poll taxes, literacy tests, felon disenfranchisement, and threatened or real violence.  For example, there were 130,334 African American voters in Louisiana in 1896, but only 1,342 in 1904.

According to “Registration of Voters in Louisiana”: “Six pages of [the Constitution of 1898] are devoted to suffrage and elections.  The object of the convention was, of course, to establish white supremacy by reducing the number of Negroes voting to a minimum.  The qualifications to vote as well as

the entire system of registration were written in such a way that most Negroes could be disenfranchised.

Other clauses were incorporated to permit the poor white to vote and yet not admit the Negro to the ballot.”

Felon disenfranchisement laws still have a disproportionate impact on African Americans.  Only Maine and Vermont (both of which have small African American populations) have no felon disenfranchisement laws.  Felons can vote from prison in those states.  Southern states are disproportionately represented among states with the extensive felon disenfranchisement laws, as are states with large non-white prison populations.  African American males have been significantly impacted, with roughly one in six disenfranchised in the early 21 century because of felony convictions.

It seems likely that if the U.S. didn’t engage in felon disenfranchisement that a number of election results, including at the presidential level, would have had different outcomes. The U.S. is the only democracy that has lifetime felon disenfranchisement.  We are still living with the legacy of slavery.

Barbara Simons

PS: Thanks again to Barbara for a valuable history lesson of background for our work at TTV to  include registration as a legally required part of a broader effort voter record management technology, that also includes some of the changes contemplated by the “election modernization” efforts in Congress.  — John Sebes, CTO TrustTheVote Project

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