In 1860, no state imposed property qualifications for voting and only a half-dozen had tax-paying requirements.
As the winners in this new political order, white men shaped the nation’s laws and policies without regard to women or minorities.
They raised the specter of blacks flooding into states not just to vote, but also to hold public office.
A whites-only suffrage, they argued, would preserve the integrity, independence, and virtue of the vote.
What has changed is the nature of suppression—either the addition of regulations, or the deregulation of parts of the process—as well as the degree to which would-be vote suppressors reveal their intentions.
The American problem with voter suppression started with a void in the original Constitution, which did not include a right to vote.
The more that efforts to suppress voting rights in America change, the more they remain the same.
From the earliest days of the republic to the present, politicians have sought to limit the ability of non-whites to vote.
In that case, two inspectors of elections in Kentucky were indicted for their refusal to receive and count any vote of a black candidate in a city election. The Supreme Court dismissed the indictments on the grounds that the Enforcement Act of 1870’s provisions for punishing state election officials for depriving voting rights exceeded the power of Congress to regulate elections. By narrowly interpreting legislative and executive Reconstruction power, the Supreme Court decisions during this era paved the way for the federal government to withdraw from the field of substantive civil rights enforcement for nearly a century. Other techniques by Southern states included literacy tests, arbitrary registration practices, and poll taxes.
In 1890, states began to adopt explicit literacy tests to disenfranchise voters, which had a vast differential racial impact since 40-60% of blacks were illiterate (compared to 8-18% of whites). Due solely to white illiterates opposing the literacy tests, Southern states adopted either: (1) an “understanding clause,” which entitled voters who could not pass the test to vote, provided they could demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of a passage in the constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar; or (2) a “grandfather clause,” which allowed white illiterates to vote if they were descendants from someone eligible to vote in 1867, the year before blacks attained the franchise to vote. Additionally, Southern states made registration to vote a difficult process, by requiring frequent re-registration, long terms of residence in a district, registration at inconvenient times, and provisions of information unavailable to many blacks (e.g. Newkirk II, , Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, May 19, 2017,