The Disenfranchisement of African Americans

Homogenizing the Electorate

Suffrage laws in most states were revised frequently between the Civil War and World War I, both at state constitutional conventions and through the normal legislative process. State legislators drew up increasingly detailed statutes dictated electoral procedures of all types, including the timing of elections, the location of polling places, the hours that polls would be open, the configuration of ballots, and the counting of votes. Many of these rules were purely administrative, but as conflict over the political rights of immigrants intensified, many laws were aimed at purifying the electorate in the North, just as they had been in the South. 

Amongst the laws enacted in northern states to influence the outcome of elections were laws that affected the weight, or value, of votes cast. Legislative gerrymandering of electoral districts could help ensure that the number of seats that immigrant voters—who were often confined to distinct poor neighborhoods—could control was kept at a minimum. Many states also passed laws governing how candidates and parties could appear on the ballot, in an attempt to combat the negative effects of machine politics. 

Nonetheless, the most important legal changes during this time period were those that aimed to restrict the franchise by denying the right to vote outright to certain portions of the population. Laws set out the fundamental qualifications that a man (or woman) had to meet in order to become an eligible voter, and increasingly worked to establish the procedures that a potential voter had to follow in order to participate in elections. Both types remained under state control, since the Constitution and federal courts continued to say little about suffrage, except with regard to race. In every state, changes in both substantive and procedural laws were proposed and debated, often giving rise to reforms that effectually narrowed the franchise. 

Justified as measures to limit corruption or to produce a more competent electorate, such efforts included the introduction of literacy tests, lengthening residency requirements, abolishing provisions that permitted noncitizen aliens to vote, and the creation of complex, cumbersome registration procedures. Stripping voters of the franchise was a politically delicate operation that generally had to be performed obliquely and without provoking considerable backlash. It should be noted that the effort to keep immigrants from the polls was distinct from the movement to restrict immigration itself—and the laws aimed at keeping immigrants from the polls were in force long before Congress passed the path-breaking Restriction and Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924. 

Money and the Vote

Even though property holding requirements were largely a thing of the past, other economic requirements for voting continued to be useful for controlling the franchise. Although difficult to justify because they were seen as violating democratic principles, economic qualifications continued to offer opponents of universal suffrage a direct and potentially efficient means of winnowing out undesirable voters.

Poverty or the participation in alms programs could cost a working class citizen the right to vote in many states—turning to the state and its taxpayers for support was tantamount to becoming something less than a full citizen. 

Alien Suffrage

Another important step toward keeping immigrants from the polls was the revocation of state laws that permitted noncitizen aliens to vote. These laws had been put in place to encourage settlement in sparsely populated areas, but as immigrants became less likely to be permanent settlers in given location, and much more likely to be itinerant workers or flock to urban areas, these laws were quickly stricken from the books. 

New obstacles were placed in the path of immigrant voters as well. Many states moved to require naturalized citizens to present their naturalization papers to election officials before registering or voting. Lawmakers knew this requirement would pose a significant procedural hurdle for many immigrants, who might not have their papers or be unaware of this requirement. 

Another method, reminiscent of Know-Nothing proposals, was to prohibit naturalized citizens from voting unless they had been nationalized for a specified (and often lengthy) period of time before an election. These laws placed an additional burden on foreign-born citizens and prevented aliens from voting if they were naturalized too soon before an election. 

Educated Voters

The most popular method of constricting the electorate was the literacy or education test, as effective in the north as it had been in the south. Massachusetts and Connecticut had adopted such tests in the 1850s under the Know-Nothings, and support for them became widespread beginning in the 1870s. 

It was an attractive idea to many that voters should be required to be literate in the English language. Reading and writing could help voters make more informed choices, while simultaneously keeping large portions of immigrant population from voting. Education or literacy requirements were more popular than taxpaying requirements or other economic bars to voting, and they were not overtly discriminatory like waiting periods after naturalization. After all, one could learn to read and write and remove that particular bar from voting. 

Even still, literacy tests and education requirements sparked vocal opposition—even though they were not specifically targeted at any one ethnic group, the negative effect they would have on immigrant populations was well understood. As a result of this opposition, which came mostly from the Democrats, who were supported by immigrants in large part, many states outside of the South ultimately did not adopt literacy tests. Missouri rejected a literacy test in 1875, as did Michigan in 1907, and Illinois voted against one on several occasions, up to and including 1920. In New Mexico, the sizable Spanish-speaking electorate went so far as to write into the state’s first constitution that “the right of any citizen…to vote…shall never be restricted, abridged, or impaired on account of inability to speak, read, or write the English and Spanish languages.” Immigrants in New York, backed by the Irish and later the Italian and Jewish communities, successfully resisted a test until after World War I.

Nonetheless, by the mid-1920s, 13 states in the North and West had literacy tests in force, disfranchising voters who met all the other eligibility requirements. They were effective in disenfranchising significant portions of the population, even in the early part of the 20th century. The 1920 census reported the 8% of the voting-age population was illiterate, and 25% of men who took an army literacy test during World War I were judged to be illiterate. It is difficult to say just how many voters were disenfranchised because of literacy tests, particularly since many states used grandfather clauses to protect existing voters even if they were illiterate, but a reasonable estimate is that a minimum of 700,000 voters—and likely more than 1 million—were barred by these tests outside of the South.