A History of Voter ID, Part I

"We Came Here to Exclude the Negro"

Delegates to Mississippi Constitutional Convention, 1890

This is the first in a multi-part series digging deeper into some of today's more pressing issues in voting rights and voter suppression.

Over the last decade, there has been a strong push across the country to implement laws requiring voters to provide a form of identification in order to receive their ballots.  As of today, 34 states have some form of a voter ID law on the books.  Proponents contend that these laws are necessary ("3 million illegals voted!") and that they're based on new developments in recent elections ("Illegals stole the popular vote in 2016!").  In fact, neither contention is true.  

Not only do voter ID laws detract from democratic principles, they're actually extensions of other troubling policies enacted in our country's past.

Today, universal voting rights for citizens are generally seen as central to our electoral system, but this was not always the case.  In particular, African Americans, especially those living in the South, have faced barriers to voting throughout American history.  It was not until 1870 that the 15th Amendment barred states from denying voting rights based on race (and, by the way, it was not until 1920 that the 19th Amendment ensured women the right to vote).  

Those Constitutional amendments fixed the problem, right?  Unfortunately not.

Instead, overt bans on voting were replaced with covert policies designed to have the same effect.  These policies included poll taxes, which required voters to pay a fee in order to vote, and literacy tests, which barred those who couldn’t read from voting. 

Like voter ID laws, these policies were race-blind in theory and appealed to some sense of logic.  Running an election costs money, after all -- why not implement a tax to pay for it? And if you're illiterate, how can you possibly submit an informed vote?

Yet in reality, literacy tests, poll taxes, and similar policies in the South were designed and enforced to keep African Americans away from the polls.  Because (white) clerks administered the literacy tests, they had the luxury of deciding who passed and who failed.  They often abused this power in order to pass white registrants and fail black registrants.  In Mississippi, African American voter registration levels fell from 90% in the 1870s to just 6% in 1892.  And lest people think that was just an accident, the chair of Mississippi’s constitutional convention in 1890 proudly proclaimed, “We came here to exclude the Negro.”  Mississippi’s actions were copied by states throughout the South, with similar effects.  

Literacy tests and poll taxes weren’t the only subtle tricks used to make voting harder.  For instance, Alabama instituted a burdensome voter registration process that made voting challenging for many of its residents, particularly African Americans.

These policies and practices had two things in common.  For one, they did not explicitly ban anyone from voting, and they were worded in a way that applied the rules equally to everyone.  Remember, overt discrimination was no longer allowed, so code words like "taxes" and "tests" had to be used.  Second, despite the appearance of rational justification and non-discriminatory intent, the truth was different.  Both intent and execution were designed to prevent African Americans from casting their ballots.  Although overt discrimination was no longer legal, Southern white leaders found that covert tactics could be used to keep their same stranglehold on power.  The tactics were effective and spread like wildfire.  Mississippi was the first to employ literacy tests; within 20 years every state in the former Confederacy used them.

Eventually, the laws caught up.  The 24th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and gave the federal government more authority to protect voting rights.  Nevertheless, the urge to make voting a challenging process for certain groups of citizens has never gone away, whether it's for racial purposes or as a means of obtaining or maintaining political power.  And, consistent with past practice, code words continue to be used.

Today, most politicians who favor voting restrictions stick to talking points that perpetuate the myth of unsubstantiated voter fraud.  Some are more open about it, though that's the exception (for obvious reasons).  In 2012, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai claimed the state’s voter ID law (which has since been struck down by courts) would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” effectively admitting that the law would disproportionately hurt voters aligned with the Democratic Party (as people of color often are).  Unfortunately, this scheme works: voter ID laws diminish turnout among minority voters by as much as 2-3%.

The right to vote is a concept central to our democracy.  Already, voter turnout is lower in the United States than in most of the developed world, and the legacy of policies designed to keep people away from the polls is a stain on our country’s great history.  Voter ID laws may have become popular in the last decade, but in reality they are nothing new.  

In future posts we'll discuss why Voter ID restrictions have such a negative impact, and what can be done to fix this problem and make our voting system more equal.