On Election Day in 1960, four unanswerable questions awaited Clarence Gaskins, a Black voter in Georgia looking to cast his ballot for president. Upon arrival at his designated polling place, he was ushered into a room that held a jar of corn, a cucumber, a watermelon, and a bar of soap. He was informed that in order to vote, he first had to answer the following correctly:
“How many kernels of corn are in the jar? How many bumps on the cucumber? How many seeds in the watermelon? And how many bubbles in the bar of soap?”
Clarence didn’t bother guessing once the polling official admitted there were no right answers. His vote was neither cast nor counted.
The connection between race and voter suppression did not end in the 1960s. While the overtly racist voter suppression tactics of the Jim Crow past are no longer with us, voter suppression remains a mainstay of electoral politics in the United States today.
Erecting New Barriers to the Ballot Box
Over the past decade, half the states in the nation have placed new, direct burdens on people’s right to vote, abetted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. And the racial cause and effect of these seemingly race-neutral laws are hard to escape.
Take strict voter ID.
These laws require voters to present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote, and they offer no meaningful fallback options for people who do not possess one of these IDs. Like their Jim Crow predecessors, strict voter ID laws are often defended by reference to a racially neutral need to defend the “integrity” of elections. Specifically, defenders claim that voter ID laws are needed to combat voter impersonation fraud. But study after study has shown that voter impersonation fraud is vanishingly rare.
Many also claim that these laws impose little burden because everyone has the requisite ID — but the reality is that millions of Americans don’t, and they are disproportionately people of color.
Look at North Dakota: a federal district court found that, when the state enacted its current ID law in 2017, 19 percent of Native Americans lacked qualifying ID compared to less than 12 percent of other potential voters.
Likewise, Texas permits voters to use a handgun license to vote, but not a student ID from a state university. More than 80 percent of handgun licenses issued to Texans in 2018 went to white Texans, while more than half of the students in the University of Texas system are racial or ethnic minorities.
Strict voter ID is just one of a number of racially charged voting restrictions that states have adopted this decade. For example, following the election and reelection of President Obama — and the concomitant surge in turnout by Black voters — states like North Carolina imposed new restrictions on early voting, which was disproportionately used by people of color.
Other states imposed new restrictions on the voter registration process. In 2019, for example, Tennessee imposed new hurdles for third-party voter registration drives in response to a “large-scale effort to register black voters” ahead of the 2018 election.
In 2017, Georgia enacted an “exact match” law mandating that voters’ names on registration records must perfectly match their names on approved forms of identification. In the leadup to the 2018 election, approximately 80 percent of Georgia voters whose registrations were blocked by this law were people of color. (A lawsuit forced the state to largely end the policy in 2019.)
of Georgia voters blocked by the state’s “exact match” voter registration law were people of color in 2018.
Complaint, Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, Inc. v. Kemp ¶ 68 (Oct. 11, 2018)
Furthermore, the Brennan Center has documented a surge in voter purges — the sometimes error-prone process by which election officials remove allegedly ineligible voters from the rolls — in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting.
The Supreme Court’s 2013 Voting Rights Act decision ended the requirement for those places to get permission (or “preclearance”) from the federal government before changing their voting rules. Afterwards, the median purge rate in counties previously covered by the law was 40 percent higher than the purge rate in other jurisdictions.
Unsurprisingly, in the past decade, federal courts have repeatedly found that voting restrictions and other voting measures were passed with a racially discriminatory purpose.
“Meet James Crow, Esquire”
As these examples make clear, race continues to play a key role in the voting process. The racial components of new voting restrictions are still here, but they are more subtle. Commenting on this change, civil rights activist Rev. William Barber II has said, “Jim Crow did not retire: he went to law school and launched a second career. Meet James Crow, Esquire.”
As voter suppression continues to evolve — with communities of color still bearing the brunt — protecting the right to vote remains as important today as it has ever been.