Following the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, there was a period of almost 40 years where there was little change to speak of to voting law in the United States. Women had been enfranchised, resolving one of the largest points of conflict about American suffrage, and in the South, the web of complex restrictions was reliably holding African Americans and many poor whites out of the franchise.
The last state to impose a literacy test for voting was Oregon in 1924, bringing the total number of states who used that tool to control the franchise to 18. No state repealed its literacy test following World War I, and most kept them in force through the 1960s. Along with literacy tests, most of the other schemes that southern states had concocted to keep African Americans remained in force, while the federal government continued not to interfere with their enforcement. It was the stance of Congress and the Supreme Court that laws that did not overtly violate the 15th Amendment were constitutional.
In the North, most of the restrictions on the franchise put in place at the turn of the century also remained in force. Immigrants had to overcome lengthy residency requirements, naturalization fees, and in many cases literacy tests if they wanted to vote. The laws that aimed at keeping old-line Republicans in power were effective, and little changed about Northern politics during this time.
A few technical and administrative changes did occur in voting laws from 1920-1940. Residency requirements became universal—they were typically one year but could be shorter or longer depending on the state. It was also common for localities to adopt residency requirements for their own elections, usually shorter than those required by states.
Most states also adopted voter registration laws by 1940; only Arkansas did not have a voter registration law, because its constitution prohibited one. While most voter registration laws had their genesis in cities, the convenience offered by preregistration led to their adoption everywhere.
The stability in voting law from 1920 through World War II reflected a calming of elite and middle-class apprehensions about the breath of the franchise along several different lines—efforts of disenfranchising African Americans in the South were working, and enfranchisement of women created no serious disruptions to the political order. Accordingly, for a few years at least, there were significant pressures neither to enlarge the franchise, nor to constrict it further.
World War II changed everything. The largest military engagement in American history mobilized almost every male of military age—including approximately 1,000,000 African Americans, and thousands of Native Americans and Asian Americans. As it had many times before, the deployment of disenfranchised soldiers brought up the inescapable question: could they be asked to lay down their lives for a country where they did not enjoy the right to vote?
The war aims of the United States during World War II also shaped how it would impact the development of American democracy. It was clear the United States was fighting a war for democracy—to restore democratic regimes to the conquered nations of Europe, as well as to end the racial and ethnic discrimination practiced by the Nazis and the Japanese. This ideological element of World War II is abundantly clear in the wartime propaganda and the wartime messages coming from the Roosevelt White House. At the same time, however, both the Nazis and Japanese used it to their advantage that the United States was still hugely discriminatory towards large parts of its population.
The United States’ hypocrisy undercut its message of democratic values. World War II was as much an ideological war as it was a military war. And to achieve victory in the ideological war, for America to be the beacon of democracy it claimed to be, addressing inequality at home became a newly pressing concern of the federal government.
African American leaders took advantage of the ideological dimension of World War II, invoking American opposition to Nazi racism to call for an end to discrimination in the United States. Walter White—the Civil Rights activist and President of the NAACP—challenged Roosevelt to “Prove to the colored peoples…that you are not hypocrites when you say this is a war for freedom.”
The NAACP, which by then had a membership of over 400,000, announced that this war for freedom would be fought on “two fronts,” abroad and at home. Declaring “we shall not abate one iota our struggle for full citizenship rights in the United States,” the NAACP combated lynching, social segregation, and disenfranchisement with a growing social movement and an increasingly sophisticated legal apparatus that in a few years began to win key victories in the battle for civil rights.
The war prompted some of the earliest victories of the Civil Rights movement, which were directly related to suffrage. In 1942 Congress passed the Soldier Voting Act, which put in place mechanisms to allow the more than 5 million men and women who were deployed to vote while they were away from home. Most states already allowed absentee voting, but the Soldier Voting Act standardized and federalized those procedures. On its face the act was just an administrative provision, but it contained a provision that was something more: the act exempting any soldier from having to pay a poll tax. Passed over the objections of Southerners in Congress, it was the first chink in the armor of one of the most popular tools for keeping African Americans from the polls.