Race, Voting Laws, and an Old Joke

July 30, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A federal appeals court yesterday overturned North Carolina’s new Voter ID laws. The judges unanimously agreed that the laws “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The law, of course, did not mention race at all. Neither did its historical antecedents – laws that required a poll tax or a literacy test. Or the secret ballot.  Yes, as I was surprised to learn, the secret ballot too, in its early days, was supported and used as a tool to suppress the votes of minorities.

The voting that we now take for granted – privately marking a ballot provided by the government – did not become standard in the US until well into the 19th century. The first presidential election where secret ballots predominated was the election of 1896, which, not coincidentally, was the first year without an election-day killing. Earlier in the century, voters got their ballots from newspapers –this was back in the day when newspapers were highly partisan – and brought them to the polls. These tickets were long and brightly colored –  a different color for each party – and the only way to keep them secret was to fold them up and put them in your pocket. But that was considered unmanly.

Some of the first secret-ballot laws were passed in the 1880s in states where women had won the right to vote – Massachusetts, New York – and wanted to be protected from public scrutiny and possible harm. The other states that went for the secret ballot at this time were in the South. This was the post-Reconstruction era, the era of Jim Crow laws. The secret ballot also had support from Northern states that wanted to suppress the immigrant vote.

Historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, interviewed on by Terry Gross NPR’s “Fresh Air” back in February, explained:

LEPORE: It was a way to disenfranchise newly-enfranchised black men. None of them knew how to read – they’d been raised in slavery, lived their entire lives as slaves on plantations. The real success of the secret ballot as a national political institution had to do with the disenfranchisement of black men.

GROSS: So the secret ballot was a way of helping them get the vote. [Note that Terry Gross is so thoroughly modern that she doesn’t grasp what Lepore is saying.]

LEPORE: No, it was preventing them from voting. If you could cut your ballot out of the newspaper and knew you wanted to vote Republican, you didn't have to know how to read to vote. Immigrants could vote. Newly-enfranchised black men in the South could vote. It actually was a big part of expanding the electorate. But people in the North were like, hey, we don't really like when all those immigrants vote. And people in the South were like, we really don't want these black guys to vote. There were good reasons for the secret ballot too. [It was] very much motivated by making it harder for people who were illiterate to vote. It’s essentially a de facto literacy test.

[I have edited this for clarity. The full transcript is here.]
But what if some Blacks might be able to read the ballot?

Some counties in Virginia, in the 1890s print some regular ballots. But then they print ballots in Gothic type - like, deep medieval Gothic type. And they give all those ballots to the black men. Its a completely illegible ballot.

There’s a joke that I first heard during the campaign for voting rights in the 1960s. [The version I heard included a word too offensive these days to use casually, so I have censored it.]

On election day in Alabama, a Black man shows up at the polls. “Sure, you can vote, boy” the poll watchers tell him, “but you know, you got to pass the literacy test.” The Black man nods. “Can you read, boy?” He nods again. The poll watcher hands him a newspaper – the Jewish Daily Forward.

“Can you read it, boy?”

“Well,” says the Black man, “I can’t read the small print, but I can read the headlines.”

“Yeah? What’s it say?”

“Schvartzim voten nisht in Alabama hay yor.”

The official title of the North Carolina law when it was proposed was

An act to restore confidence in government by establishing the voter information verification act to promote the electoral process through education and increased registration of voters and by requiring voters to provide photo identification before voting to protect the right of each registered voter to cast a secure vote with reasonable security measures that confirm voter identity as accurately as possible without restriction, and to further reform the election laws.

The shorter title was

Schwartzim ain’t votin’ in North Carolina this year.

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