Political Opression

The persecution of an individual or group for political
reasons, in particular for the purpose of restricting or preventing
their ability to take part in the political life of a society.


African-Americans demonstrate in favor of a strong civil right picket outside GOP convention hall, Chicago, Illinois, July 1960.

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." - Fifteenth Amendment

But in order to prevent African-Americans from becoming a political threat, they were not allowed to vote. As a result, they had no say in what officials were elected. When discriminatory laws were approved by the Supreme Court, such as Williams v. Mississippi, in which African-Americans were barred from voting, these laws spread through the South quickly.

According to the Civil Rights Foundation, Given the green light, Southern states began to limit the voting right to those who owned property or could pass a literacy test, to those whose grandfathers had been able to vote, to those with ‘good characters,’ to those who paid poll taxes. In 1896, Louisiana had 130,334 registered black voters. Eight years later, only 1,342, one percent, could pass the state’s new rules.

This left white voters in control, which was essential for them to maintain white political dominance. There were several ways that prevented African-Americans from being able to vote.

Part of Louisiana's Voter Literacy Test given to African-American's, 1964.

  1. Former prisoners: Individuals who had gone to prison were not able to vote. During this time African-American’s were often arrested falsely, or on minor offenses. Prisons provided cheap labor to keep the Southern states economy afloat.
  2. Grandfather clause: People who could not read and owned no property were exempt from educational, property, or tax requirements for voting if their fathers or grandfathers had voted before 1867. Of course, practically no blacks could vote before 1867, just two years after slaves were freed.
  3. Literacy test: Most illiterate people were not allowed to vote. A few were allowed if they could understand what was read to them. The literacy tests varied from state to state. But they often included trivia questions related to civic procedure and citizenship and sometimes even trick questions. Even if an African-American was able to pass the test, they still were not able to vote.
  4. Poll taxes: In Southern states, people had to pay a tax in order to vote. Many people had low incomes and could not afford this tax. In some southern states poor southern whites could bypass the poll taxes due to the Grandfather clause.
  5. Property: Many states only allowed property owners to vote. During this time many African-Americans did not own property, some states even restricted the type of property that African-Americans can own.
  6. Purges: Some white officials removed names off of the official lists of registered voters.
  7. Violence: African-American’s who tried to vote were threatened, arrested, attacked, and some were even killed. Some of their families were harmed, their homes were burned down, and their jobs were threatened if they tried to vote.

"The tax collector shall keep a separate account of the amount of the poll taxes paid by persons, of each race in each township or separate school district." - Alabama, 1935


Still, former felons, which account for 6.1 million people in 2016, are not allowed to vote in most states. 1 of every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans. There are also restrictions on those who are currently serving sentences or on parole or probation. Purging is also another method still used today that affect people of color. Any registered voter in the state can challenge another voter’s registration. These voters are notified via mail and must appear at a county board of elections or return a notarized form in order to maintain their ability to vote.

Source: Michael P. McDonald. 2002. "The Turnout Rate Among Eligible Voters for U.S. States, 1980-2000." State Politics and Policy Quarterly 2(2): 199-212.

Although most the methods that were used to prevent African-Americans to vote are no longer in place there are now news laws that still put a burden on eligible voters. Cuts to early voting, voter ID laws and purges of voter rolls make it harder for African-Americans, as well as students, people with disabilities and the elderly to vote.

Overview of how voter identification, early voting, and same day registration are keeping some Americans from the election polls.

The voter ID laws are similar to the poll tax laws that were in place. Many people of color, especially those of fixed incomes do not have transportation needed to travel to special offices where they can get a government-issued ID. A birth certificate, which can cost anywhere from $10 to $45 is also another additional expense. The housing crisis also left many minorities and poor families unable to claim permanent residency to get a voter ID. In the 2016 presidential election up to 17 states that are home to over 110 million people and account for 189 out of the 270 electoral votes have restrictive voting laws in place.

Restrictive Voting Laws during the 2016 Presidential Election

State Description
Alabama Voter ID - Alabama implemented a strict voter ID law requiring a driver’s license or similar to vote. Then, in 2015, Alabama shut down driver’s license offices in 31 counties – including every county in which African Americans make up 75% or more of registered voters.
Arizona Dual-registration system; Restriction on Mail-in Ballots - In Arizona, voters using the federal voter registration form will be registered for federal elections only, and will not be permitted to vote for state offices.In March 2016, Arizona also passed legislation restricting the collection of mail-in ballots, a measure which disproportionately impacts people of color in the state.
Georgia Early Voting Cutbacks - In 2011, Georgia also halved early voting days, cutting 45 days down to 21, and eliminating early voting the weekend before Election Day.
Kansas Documentary proof of citizenship requirement; Dual-registration system - In Kansas, first-time registrants are required to submit documentary proof-of-citizenship, which has blocked over 30,000 registrations.
Indiana Additional Scrutiny of Voters at the Polls - In 2013, Indiana passed a law allowing party-nominated officers to demand further proof of identification from voters.
Mississippi Voter ID - In 2012, Mississippi implemented a strict voter ID law
Nebraska Early Voting Cutbacks - In 2013, Nebraska cut its early voting period from 35 days to no more than 30 days.
New Hampshire Voter ID - In September 2015, New Hampshire made its voter ID requirements stricter by requiring voters to have their pictures taken at the polls if they are voting by the affidavit alternative.
North Carolina Voter ID; Early voting cutbacks; Elimination of Same-Day Registration. Under North Carolina’s voter ID law, more than 200,000 registered voters lack appropriate ID to vote in North Carolina. The state also eliminated a week of early voting days, during which 900,000 voters cast their ballots in the 2012 presidential election. North Carolina also eliminated same-day registration, used by approximately 200,000 voters in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections; pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds; and out-of-precinct provisional balloting.
North Dakota Voter ID - North Dakota’s voter ID law is one of the strictest in the nation, prohibiting student IDs, US passports and military IDs as valid ID at the polls.
Ohio Elimination of same-day registration; Early voting cutbacks - In 2014, Ohio eliminated in-person early voting on weekends and on weekdays after 5pm, and also eliminated the so-called “Golden Week,” the week before an election in which Ohioans could both register and vote on the same day. Approximately 90,000 voters cast their ballots during the Golden Week in the 2012 presidential election.
Rhode Island Voter ID - Rhode Island's voter ID law, passed in 2011, requires voters to present a broad range of IDs with a voter's name and photograph, though there is an affidavit alternative.
Tennessee Voter ID; Early Voting Cutbacks - Since 2011, Tennessee requires photo ID to vote, and in 2014, this law was made more restrictive by limiting IDs to those issued by the State or Federal government. Lawmakers have also reduced the early voting period.
Texas Voter ID - In 2013, Texas passed a strict voter ID law. Over 600,000 registered voters in Texas lack acceptable ID to vote in Texas. Furthermore, Texas does not accept UT student ID cards
Wisconsin Voter ID; Early voting cutbacks - Approximately 300,000 registered voters lack acceptable ID under Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law. The state has also eliminated all early voting on weekends before an election.

How Can I Help?

States across the country have passed measures to make it harder for African-Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote.