By Allen R. Gray
Dallas Area African American Newspaper Publishers
It is difficult to determine where the line between voter suppression ends and voter apathy begins. What is certain, though, is that the line of demarcation between the two has been blurred by decades upon decades of interference from damning schemes that strip Black Americans of their legal right to have a say when it comes to elections.
Know that voter apathy for Black voter apathy is not innate. It is instead a psychological implant that has been nurtured over time and has evolved over generations due to the many mutations of the poll tax. The poll tax wasn’t born during post-Civil War Reconstruction, though. The concept of the poll tax dates to the time of Cleopatra’s Egypt, and essentially all conquering nations since that time have used a “head tax” or capitation to sustain its government and fund wars; but Americans during the 19th century took the poll tax to a whole new level.
During the period of Reconstruction, when newly freed slaves gained the right to vote, various forms of the poll tax became a lot more creative than guessing the number of jelly beans in a mason jar. The Grandfather clause, for instance, said that you could only vote if your father voted. Which meant that all former slaves were left out. Then there was the literacy test, which asked that you be able to read (literature supplied by election officials) before you could vote. Blacks were asked to read complex legal documents, while whites were asked to read literature with simple sight words. The voting dilemma became even more compounded when we consider that only people who qualified to vote prior to the Civil War, or whose ancestors qualified to vote were allowed to cast ballots during elections. This requirement eliminated an entire nation of newly freed slaves. White men, of course, were exempt from the rigors of poll taxation in any form. These methods of suppression towards Blacks sustained well into the early 1900s.
The monetary poll tax, which is perhaps the most infamous of all poll taxes, often ranged anywhere from $1.50 and greater per voter. That doesn’t seem like much by today’s standards—but when you consider that in 1905 the average Black family earned around $3 per week, sirloin steaks were 10 cents a pound and the homes sold for approximately $3,500—potential voters were forced to decide whether to vote or feed their families.
These insidious measures worked to suppress the Black vote for more than a century, despite legislation that mandated otherwise. The “Reconstruction Amendments” attempted to rectify Blacks’ right to vote. The 13th Amendment (1865) freed the slaves; the 14th Amendment (1866) gave Blacks citizenship. (The Black Codes, laws aimed at oppressing Blacks, were also enacted in 1865.) The 15th Amendment (1870) outlawed discrimination in voting rights but it had no penalties for violating of those rights. So, in 1870, the Enforcement Act attempted to give teeth to laws that had bark but no bite.
After decades of protest and civil unrest, the House passed the 24th Amendment in 1962 eradicating the poll tax for federal elections. Then the landmark Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 that sought to secure Blacks’ right to vote unencumbered. Yet, voter suppression in some form lingered, nonetheless. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections also rendered the poll tax unconstitutional for state and local elections. Yet, as recently as 2013, that same U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that states had the right to do things like limit early voting and require voters to show photo IDs.
The spirit of Jim Crow laws has proven to be that revenant who can mutate and transform depending on the climate and circumstance. While in the past voter suppression was much more obvious, today’s systemic racism has a more covert means of undermining the voting rights of targeted demographic groups.
Today, we would be hard-pressed to find the Ku Klux Klan at polling places burning crosses and crops to turn voters away, but contemporary methods of suppression have proven to be just as effective acts of violence. Here are some contemporary tactics used to turn voters away from election polls:
• Voter ID requirements allow election officials to use false claims of rampant voter fraud to justify strict requirements like a photo ID, or laws requiring a physical street address discriminate against minorities groups that are more likely to have P.O. Box addresses, such as Native Americans living on reservations.
• Lack of language access, where election officials refuse to translate materials or offer language assistance (as required by law), which suppresses the voting of Asian Americans and Latinos.
• Voter roll purges, claims to remove duplicate names, the names of the deceased, or the names of convicted felons. The purge actually deletes the names of millions of eligible voters and disproportionately effects communities of color.
• Polling place closures/consolidations, where election officials have closed thousands of polling places, largely in communities of color. Recently in Chicago’s Cook County alone, which has the largest non-Hispanic black population in the country, 95 polling places were either closed or moved.
• Lack of funding for elections, demonstrated its affect when during the 2000 presidential election in Florida there was failure in the recount process, flawed ballot designs, and voting machines that overheated and failed.
• Provisional ballot requirements, if a voter’s eligibility is in question they may use a provisional ballot to be counted until eligibility is confirmed. However, localities determine how many provisional ballots are printed, which meant that in certain localities far less were printed than were actually needed.
• Reduced early voting, early voting is essential to hourly workers who don’t have expendable time, because of work or child care obligations. Recently, time apportioned to early voting has been drastically cut which negatively affects communities of color.
• Reduced regular voting hours, negatively affects low-income workers, who don’t have the convenience of arriving to work late or taking extended midday breaks; or who are strapped due to childcare arrangements.
Other means of suppression are poorly trained volunteer poll workers, partisan election administrators, and the creation of at-large local offices to dilute the minority vote.
These tactics of voter suppression have proven to be particularly fruitful in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and especially Texas. In the wake of this century-long onslaught on voter suppression a toll has been taken on Black voters.
In 1890, the qualified Black voters registered to have their voice heard was at 90 percent. By 1940, only 3 percent of qualified Black voters were registered. Today, less than half of all registered Black voters regularly participate in elections. Although, if Blacks have someone they feel is worth voting they have shown to be less apathetic.
With Obama on the ticket in 2008 and 2012, the number of Blacks that voted rose tremendously. Yet when they needed to vote the most in 2016, Black voter turnout fell drastically. And eight percent of the Blacks that did vote that year voted for Trump. Political districts with a relative low percentage of registered Blacks voting is routinely high, compared to districts with a greater percentage of registered Blacks where the voting is repulsively low; and Black women tend to vote more than Black men.
Since 1865 to the present, the provocateurs of this most insidious scheme have done a most commendable job of implanting the spirit of apathy deep within the psyche of African American voters—while the victims have proven to do very little to assuage its effects.
There is, however, a ray of hope for the minority voters. From 2014 to 2018 Blacks have had the highest voter turnout upsurge of all demographic groups, with an increase greater than 18 percent. The status of Black voting isn’t what it used to be 20 years ago, but it surely isn’t what it was in 1890.
The issue of Jim Crow being dead has been greatly overstated. He has merely changed his name to systemic racism, a more covert method of depriving citizens seeking to be heard at polling places. If ever there was a time to shake off the effects of the psychological implant know as apathy, the time is now.