Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

A Tradition of Voter Suppression

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 6, 2018

On this election day,  Keri Leigh Merritt reminds us that voter suppression in the South is as old as, well, the South.

Widespread illiteracy and semi-literacy among the lower classes — as well as the South’s stringent censorship laws — further prevented poorer whites from involvement in the political process. When the rich did allow the non-slaveholders to vote, they were still able to control the outcome of elections, as one man observed, by “means of the votes of the poor whites whom he owns, in owning all by which they can live for another day.” 

A lower-class man who owed money to one of the county’s affluent slaveholders, or was in his employ, or lived as a tenant or renter on his land, surely felt compelled to support the rich man’s political causes. Whether this influence was subtle or overt or even coercive, poorer white men’s voting habits were carefully monitored. In some states like Alabama, a man’s right to vote could be challenged not only by the slaveholding election inspectors, but also by “any qualified elector.” 

David Reed, a gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina, cunningly reminded the state’s elite in 1850 that “the landlord will always exercise a sufficient influence over his tenants without having an additional vote,” since “those who do not own land can never … remain here long, unless the land holder permits him to do so.” Tenants and sharecroppers undoubtedly felt this pressure. Slaveholders controlled so much of Southern society that some poorer whites had no choice but to conform. Deference and intimidation clearly dominated Southern politics. 

Less devious ways to disenfranchise non-desirable voters also abounded. The structure of two-party politics itself was enough to deprive non-slaveholders a real voice in government. As a New York newspaper opined about the South in 1856, “the poor white men, the great mass of the non-slaveholding people, no doubt possess the right of suffrage, but what does that right amount to? Simply to express their preference as between two, three, or more slaveholding candidates.”

These days voter suppression efforts are typically described as being intended to limit the electoral influence of racial or ethnic minorities. But that’s not quite right; it’s about limiting the political power of the underclass as a whole, and only really about race insofar as that can be a convenient proxy for low-income voters with limited resources. In the antebellum period, race wasn’t the consideration at all; voter suppression was about keeping poor whites and the laboring class from casting ballots. The intent remains the same, even if the specific target shifts along with the demographic and political landscape.



3 Responses

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  1. OhioGuy said, on November 6, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    There are two important differences between voter suppression then and what might happen today:

    1. Today we have a secret ballot; back at that time the ballot wasn’t secret, therefore, the land owner and everyone else would know how you voted. It took an extreme amount of courage to, for instance, to ask for a Republican ballot in most southern states, where you were expected to voted the straight Democratic ticket.

    2. Requiring voter ID (here in Ohio it’s a driver’s license, other state issued ID, or some alternative forms of ID) really doesn’t prevent anyone who wants to vote from voting. There are very few instances now of people being forcefully prevented from going to the polls. The conversation now, for the most part, turns to the effects of things like voter ID requirements, location of polls, polling hours, extent of early voting opportunities and the perceived difficulty of registering to vote But, once you are at the polls, you can vote anyway you want and no one will know, unless you tell them.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 6, 2018 at 2:43 pm

      Yes. The way it’s done today is more subtle; you set up a series of small obstacles, no single one of which explicitly prevents a person from casting a ballot, but which in aggregate make for so much friction and trouble that people don’t. The act of voting should not be made a test of voters’ determination and resolve.

  2. Matt McKeon said, on November 9, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Pat Young over at Civil War Talk is posting some stellar stuff about Reconstruction/ election of 1868.

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