The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Suppression in America

A report by People for the American Way Foundation and NAACP

Introduction

In a nation where children are taught in grade school that every citizen has the right to vote, it would be comforting to think that the last vestiges of voter intimidation, oppression and suppression were swept away by the passage and subsequent enforcement of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. It would be good to know that voters are no longer turned away from the polls based on their race, never knowingly misdirected, misinformed, deceived or threatened.

Unfortunately, it would be a grave mistake to believe it.

In every national American election since Reconstruction, every election since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voters particularly African American voters and other minorities have faced calculated and determined efforts at intimidation and suppression. The bloody days of violence and retribution following the Civil War and Reconstruction are gone. The poll taxes, literacy tests and physical violence of the Jim Crow era have disappeared. Today, more subtle, cynical and creative tactics have taken their place.

Race-Based Targeting

Here are a few examples of recent incidents in which groups of voters have been singled out on the basis of race.

  • Most recently, controversy has erupted over the use in the Orlando area of armed, plainclothes officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to question elderly black voters in their homes. The incidents were part of a state investigation of voting irregularities in the city's March 2003 mayoral election. Critics have charged that the tactics used by the FDLE have intimidated black voters, which could suppress their turnout in this year’s elections. Six members of Congress recently called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate potential civil rights violations in the matter.
  • This year in Florida, the state ordered the implementation of a “potential felon” purge list to remove voters from the rolls, in a disturbing echo of the infamous 2000 purge, which removed thousands of eligible voters, primarily African-Americans, from the rolls. The state abandoned the plan after news media investigations revealed that the 2004 list also included thousands of people who were eligible to vote, and heavily targeted African-Americans while virtually ignoring Hispanic voters.
  • This summer, Michigan state Rep. John Pappageorge (R-Troy) was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, “If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election.” African Americans comprise 83% of Detroit’s population.
  • In South Dakota’s June 2004 primary, Native American voters were prevented from voting after they were challenged to provide photo IDs, which they were not required to present under state or federal law.
  • In Kentucky in July 2004, Black Republican officials joined to ask their State GOP party chairman to renounce plans to place “vote challengers” in African-American precincts during the coming elections.
  • Earlier this year in Texas, a local district attorney claimed that students at a majority black college were not eligible to vote in the county where the school is located. It happened in Waller County the same county where 26 years earlier, a federal court order was required to prevent discrimination against the students.
  • In 2003 in Philadelphia, voters in African American areas were systematically challenged by men carrying clipboards, driving a fleet of some 300 sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia.
  • In 2002 in Louisiana, flyers were distributed in African American communities telling voters they could go to the polls on Tuesday, December 10th three days after a Senate runoff election was actually held.
  • In 1998 in South Carolina, a state representative mailed 3,000 brochures to African American neighborhoods, claiming that law enforcement agents would be “working” the election, and warning voters that “this election is not worth going to jail.”

Recent Strategies

As this report details, voter intimidation and suppression is not a problem limited to the southern United States. It takes place from California to New York, Texas to Illinois. It is not the province of a single political party, although patterns of intimidation have changed as the party allegiances of minority communities have changed over the years.

In recent years, many minority communities have tended to align with the Democratic Party. Over the past two decades, the Republican Party has launched a series of “ballot security” and “voter integrity” initiatives which have targeted minority communities. At least three times, these initiatives were successfully challenged in federal courts as illegal attempts to suppress voter participation based on race.

The first was a 1981 case in New Jersey which protested the use of armed guards to challenge Hispanic and African-American voters, and exposed a scheme to disqualify voters using mass mailings of outdated voter lists. The case resulted in a consent decree prohibiting efforts to target voters by race.

Six years later, similar “ballot security” efforts were launched against minority voters in Louisiana, Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana. Republican National Committee documents said the Louisiana program alone would “eliminate at least 60- 80,000 folks from the rolls,” again drawing a court settlement.

And just three years later in North Carolina, the state Republican Party, the Helms for Senate Committee and others sent postcards to 125,000 voters, 97 percent of whom were African American, giving them false information about voter eligibility and warning of criminal penalties for voter fraud again resulting in a decree against the use of race to target voters.

Historical Perspective

This report includes detailed accounts of the recent incidents listed above, and additional incidents from the past few decades. The report also lays out a historical review of more than a hundred years of efforts to suppress and intimidate minority voters following emancipation, through Reconstruction and the “Second Reconstruction,” the years immediately following the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was among the crowning achievements of the civil rights era, and a defining moment for social justice and equality. The stories of the men and women who were willing to lay down their lives for the full rights of citizenship, including first and foremost the right to vote, are the stuff of history.

Their accomplishments can never be erased. Yet as this report details, attempts to erode and undermine those victories have never ceased. Voter intimidation is not a relic of the past, but a pervasive strategy used with disturbing frequency in recent years. Sustaining the bright promise of the civil rights era, and maintaining the dream of equal voting rights for every citizen requires constant vigilance, courageous leadership, and an active, committed and well-informed citizenry.

The Challenges of the 2004 Election and Beyond

The election problems in Florida and elsewhere that led to the disenfranchisement of some four million American voters in 2000 elections cast a harsh spotlight on flaws in our voting system, problems that involved both illegal actions and incompetence by public officials, as well as outdated machines and inadequate voter education. As election officials nationwide struggle to put new voting technology into place, redesign confusing ballots and educate voters, the opportunities for voter intimidation and suppression have proliferated along with opportunities for disenfranchisement caused by voter confusion and technical problems.

With widespread predictions of a close national election, and an unprecedented wave of new voter registration, unscrupulous political operatives will look for any advantage, including suppression and intimidation efforts. As in the past, minority voters and low-income populations will be the most likely targets of dirty tricks at the polls.

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