Despite progress to expand the electorate following the passage of the 15th and 19th amendments, deliberate efforts to restrict access to the ballot continued throughout the country, especially in the South. In response, a number of grassroots organizations formed in an attempt to re-enfranchise marginalized populations, particularly African Americans.
The constitutional amendments only protected voters of discrimination in federal elections, not in primary and local elections. Local election laws varied greatly across the nation as many states found ways to legally restrict voting access by enacting laws, commonly called Jim Crow laws, that created barriers for specific groups of people, without explicitly naming race as the discriminatory factor. Overt expressions of fear over election mismanagement, voter fraud, and voter manipulation were common justifications for why such discriminatory laws were needed. States unevenly enforced these rules, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, requiring people of color to meet the harsh standards and allowing white people greater leniency. African American voters and their allies also faced extreme violence and prejudice when they attempted to register or protest unfair practices.
Individuals and grassroots organizations attempted to combat these laws by registering new voters and encouraging participation in elections. Some groups brought civil suits against states for their discriminatory laws, demanding equal access to the polls and protections for all voters. This period is marked by extreme prejudice and a backward slide from progress that had been made with the passage of previous amendments protecting voter rights.
Explore archival material related to literacy tests, poll taxes, gerrymandering and other means of disenfranchisement.
The archival resources in this exhibition contain offensive and outdated language. We chose not to censor these items in order to accurately represent the bias and prejudice of the time. We strongly condemn the use of such language and ask exhibition visitors to engage with this material carefully and critically. Explicit warnings have been provided for those items with the most offensive language.
Photograph undated, Baltimore News American collection
Literacy tests were administered to voter registration applicants in many states. Proponents of literacy tests argued that they ensured literate and educated voters, which strengthened the integrity of elections. Those opposed to these tests noted that they were inconsistently administered, allowing some citizens to register to vote without taking literacy tests while others were denied the right to register to vote because of inconsequential errors or arbitrary assessment. These tests disproportionately affected the ability of racially and socio-economnically marginalized communities to register to vote.
Poll taxes were one of the primary disenfranchising agents of Black Americans before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, along with literacy tests and intimidation. In order to ensure that poll taxes were indeed able to exclude voters based solely on race, many Southern states included a “grandfather clause” in their registration process that allowed voters to register as long as their grandfathers had the right to vote. This rule allowed poor whites to vote but excluded many Black voters, whose grandfathers may have been enslaved or otherwise legally barred from voting. Today, poll taxes exist in newer forms. For example, a 2019 Florida bill requires former felons to pay all fees and fines related to their sentence before they are allowed to vote in the state.
Redistricting is a process that often occurs after census data indicates a need to reallocate political representation based on population. Gerrymandering is a term used when sprawling, disconnected or oddly shaped districts are created in order to grant power to one political party over another. The term was first used in the early 1800s after Elbridge Gerry drew his district in such a way that favored one political party over another.
Other means of disenfranchisement
These items contain additional information on the ways in which people from marginalized groups were subject to different rules and requirements that impacted their ability to register to vote and cast a ballot.