What were the Jim Crow voting laws?

What were the Jim Crow voting laws?
Source: Dustin Chambers, Reuters
Historians and political science authorities maintain that laws can be racially discriminatory even if they don’t explicitly single out a particular race or group.

Ever since Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed the “Election Integrity Act of 2021,” the state and its Republican lawmakers have been under fire. President Joe Biden labeled the law “outrageous” and “un-American” the day after it became law. Calling it “a blatant attack on the Constitution,” Biden joined a chorus of voices who have said the law is “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.”

It is a reference that has been made frequently in recent days as corporations like Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball have come out against the law and “voter suppression.” The Democratic Party has been uniformly opposed to the law that was passed by the state’s Republican-led General Assembly entirely along partisan lines.

Meanwhile, Republicans and conservatives have dismissed the comparisons to Jim Crow voting laws, saying the Georgia law is about ensuring all votes are counted fairly. They contend the law does nothing to suppress anyone’s vote and that there is no truth to accusations that it is racist.

Is the Georgia law racist?

Critics of the new law have argued that it was passed by Republicans specifically to disenfranchise Black citizens in the state. Black voters are credited with helping turn the state blue. Not only did the state vote for its first Democratic president since 1992, but it elected two Democrats to the Senate in its January runoff election.

Republicans dispute this characterization of Georgia’s law. Following the backlash against the law, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro argued in a tweet, “It is an overt, despicable lie that the Georgia voter law is akin to Jim Crow in any way. Yet Biden tells the lie over and over, corporations mimic the lie, and the media credulously report the lie as a legitimate opinion.”

Such claims, though, have been countered by historians and political science authorities, many of whom have adamantly decried Georgia’s new laws. They maintain that laws can be racially discriminatory even if they don’t explicitly single out a particular race or group, which is exactly what Jim Crow era voting laws did.

Steven White, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, stated on Twitter: “A lot of people seem to have developed this idea that Jim Crow era voting restrictions were a series of laws explicitly saying ‘Black people can’t vote,’ but they very specifically (and strategically) were *not* that (and indeed were much closer to what Georgia is doing now).”

To understand whether the comparisons between the “Election Integrity Act of 2021” and Jim Crow voting laws is merited, it is important to know exactly what Jim Crow laws were and, specifically, how they prevented Black Americans from voting.

Jim Crow era voting laws

“Jim Crow laws” is a broad term for both state and local laws that were intended to enforce racial segregation and white dominance in the United States. These laws, which were predominantly in effect in the American South (though not entirely), came into practice in the decades following the American Civil War and were upheld as legal until 1965.

That was the year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which specifically targeted those discriminatory laws. Though the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, had guaranteed the right to vote to all (male) citizens, regardless of race, state lawmakers had designed a variety of measures to make voting as difficult as possible for Black Americans.

The Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised Black citizens varied by state and locality, but they generally had something in common: they did not explicitly state that African Americans or any other racial minority could not vote. Instead, they created arduous barriers to voting, barring the Black vote through a range of measures that, at times, were ignored for poor white voters.

Georgia’s Jim Crow laws

Understanding the Jim Crow laws that were in effect in Georgia from post-Reconstruction through the 1960s gives a sense of what such laws were like and provides context for the recently passed voting law.

According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, these laws took on one of three forms: a poll tax, the white primary and literacy tests.

A poll tax was a fee to vote. Though these taxes were technically for everyone, they were created to restrict the Black vote. The tax was small enough not to affect wealthy white voters and poor white voters could often be allowed to waive the tax if their ancestors had voted before the Civil War (this is the origin of the “Grandfather clause”). Black Americans could not take advantage of that loophole.

Like many Jim Crow laws, the poll tax was more explicitly a burden on class than race, creating a financial burden to voting. But, because the law could be ignored on a case-by-case basis and because Black Americans were more likely to be poor than white Americans, it served as an effective racial barrier.

Literary tests were common throughout the South. Such tests required a voter to answer questions before being able to vote, with the understanding that many Black citizens (and poor white citizens) could not read or did not have access to education. Despite the name, these tests were not just about being able to read, but often consisted of difficult questions about the US Constitution and government.

Like many other Jim Crow laws, they could be administered at the discretion of the election official. A white voter might be asked a simple question like who the president was, whereas a Black voter may be given a multiple-question written test with a short time allotment. Or the poll worker may simply fail someone at will, with the voter having no recourse for challenging the result.

The white primary was another common tactic in Southern states. These were primary elections that only allowed white voters. This explicit racial divide was permitted to stand until the 1940s, under the argument that primaries were not statewide elections, but private party elections and therefore not governed by the 15th Amendment.

Voter suppression

These were some of the more general laws that were created to limit the Black vote, but there were plenty of others that were in effect, both in Georgia and throughout the South.

Another restriction was ensuring polling stations were far away from the areas where Black people lived, adding just one more barrier to the process. Voting roll purges were also a common tool. A person might show up to the poll thinking they were registered, only to find out they had been purged from the roll and couldn’t register until after the current election.

Even with these laws on the books, some Black citizens managed to vote, though certainly not at a level even remotely close to that of their white counterparts. It was a testament to their desire to have their voices heard in a time when an accusation of “racism” did not hold the political or social weight it does now.

Many now insist that current forms of voting laws, like those passed in Georgia, are the spiritual successors to Jim Crow laws.

For instance, Republicans across the country largely favor requiring picture ID to vote. It is a requirement that purportedly would reduce voter fraud and in recent years it has had broad bipartisan support, albeit with stronger support among conservatives.

The issue with such a law, critics insist, isn’t that Black voters can’t get a photo ID, it is that they are less likely to have one (for various reasons) than a white voter. Black citizens throughout the country are more likely to be homeless, to live far from the DMV or related offices and to live in poverty.

Requiring photo IDs for absentee voting is one of the new requirements in the Georgia law. As with the Jim Crow laws, the criticism of the Georgia law isn’t that it is explicitly racist. Rather, opponents of Georgia’s law (and similar proposed laws in other states) argue that these laws have the effect of limiting the Black and minority vote by making the process more involved for them.

Many of the new rules in Georgia limit how and when voters can vote, creating a situation where people who can’t easily vote during normal work hours on Election Day, a Tuesday, will find it more difficult to vote. Critics argue that, like the Jim Crow laws, though people are not legally barred from voting, it will have the effect of deterring many people, particularly Black voters.

In the current criticism surrounding the new Georgia law, there are echoes of the words of President Johnson in 1965, months before he signed the Voting Rights Act:

“Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right … For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.”

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