Voter Suppression: Then and Now

Following the 2020 presidential election, the ensuing debates over the integrity of the election and the violence of early 2021, voting rights and efforts to ensure fair and safe elections seem as important as ever.

The Brennan Center for Justice’s State Voting Bill Tracker 2021 reports that in just over one month, hundreds of restrictive bills were introduced across the country, some of which have already passed and been signed into law. Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Michigan’s legislative battles have dominated headlines for many weeks.

As debates rage, many have invoked terminology we thought a distant part of our nation’s troubled history, calling these newly introduced voting bills Jim Crow laws. Looking into our past using resources in our collections can help us better understand the ways laws meant to protect marginalized citizens failed. Politicians cloaked systemic bias into law by utilizing coded language and proxies for race to deny people of color access to the ballot.

Literacy Tests and Poll Taxes

Literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather laws all arose from efforts to ensure that the electorate was primarily composed of white, wealthy men. With constitutional amendments introduced to protect African Americans and women, politicians determined to uphold the status quo developed these laws to continue to disenfranchise people of color while being able to deny any violation of the 15th amendment. These laws were inconsistently applied across racial groups, often exempting white citizens from these rules.

Redistricting and Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering can take many forms. Techniques called “cracking and packing” involve consolidating and dividing populations in and across districts. Both techniques have the same effect of strengthening the power of the white vote while silencing marginalized votes. This document illustrates how inequitable representation was across the state of Oklahoma in the 1950s. Some districts received a representative with only half the population as other districts.

Challenging Disenfranchisement

There were many tireless advocates for equitable voting rights. Below is an example of research that demonstrates the success of expanding voting rights.

Warning: This document contains offensive and outdated language. We strongly condemn the use of such language and ask exhibition visitors to engage with this material carefully and critically.

Explore More

Explore more about historical disenfranchisement and the history of voting rights in America by visiting our virtual exhibition Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America.

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