By: Caiti Anderson
The ability to vote is a powerful tool to ensure one’s voice is heard among the clamor of democracy. However, this right has remained elusive to many throughout American history. The long, hard slog to create a “more perfect union” comprises the battle for inclusivity in the American political process. Over the next few weeks, this series will study the history of voter registration through the comparative analysis of the history of voter registration in different states and the growing movement towards automatic voter registration. Today’s article will examine Mississippi and the ongoing journey towards fair voter registration laws in that state.
Mississippi, like most states, did not utilize voter registration laws prior to the Civil War. Following the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and Mississippi’s re-entrance into the Union in 1870, half of the state’s population was comprised of freed slaves. By the end of Reconstruction, Mississippians had elected a number of blacks to political office, including two senators and a lieutenant governor. However, the removal of federal troops from the state in 1875 empowered racist organizations – most infamously, the Klu Klux Klan– to intimidate black men from voting. In conjunction with scare tactics, the Mississippians helped lead Southern states towards disenfranchising blacks. In 1890, Mississippi drafted a new constitution that made it virtually impossible for blacks to register to vote. This constitution contained some of American history’s strictest voting registration laws, including the poll tax, literacy tests, and “elaborate registration systems.” Specifically, the literacy test required voters to read and “give a reasonable interpretation” of any section of the constitution. This quickly spread to other states throughout the South. After 1890, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 eligible black Mississippi voters were registered to vote.
Although the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 enabled women’s suffrage nationwide, Mississippian officials actively discouraged women from voting. No Mississippi women could vote in the 1920 election since state officials cited a requirement that one must be registered to vote six months prior to Election Day. Mississippi and Georgia were the only states that did not pass an act to circumvent this requirement. Interestingly, Mississippi was one of the few states that specifically rejected the Nineteenth Amendment. (The state was the last to officially ratify the amendment in 1984.) According to Kenneth Johnson, the reason for this steadfast opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment stemmed from racism. If the federal government intervened to grant women suffrage, what would stop them from intervening to restore voting rights to black men? However, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment did not include this involvement. Rather, the amendment had little effect on black women in Mississippi since they were soon faced with the stringent literacy tests barring them from registration.
Voter registration did not become easier for blacks in Mississippi until after the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965. The impact of the VRA upon Mississippi was “dramatic.” In 1965, 6.7% of blacks were registered to vote; by 1988, that number increased to 74.2%. Robert Clark Jr. became the first black Mississippian legislator in the 20th century in 1967. Today, 37.4% of the population in Mississippi is black, the largest percentage of any state. Many scholars contend that the reason black candidates continue to lose in statewide elections is due to the effect of redistricting to minimize the impact of the black vote. Nonetheless, the VRA continues to play an instrumental role in promoting fair voter registration practices in Mississippi.
Today, voter registration rates in Mississippi are the second highest in the nation. In 2014, 74.6% of Mississippians were registered to vote, compared to the national average of 59.3%. (The only state with a higher registration rate is Maine, at 75.4%.) The impact of the VRA on black voter registration rates is still impressive today. 83.2% of blacks are registered to vote in Mississippi, significantly surpassing the national average of 59.7%. Certain scholars are concerned that this progress could be hampered by the Supreme Court’s reversal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Section 5 required states with a history of discriminatory voter practices to be regulated by United States Department of Justice. Any changes in a specified state’s voting law had to be approved the by the Attorney General. Now that Section 5 no longer operate to prevent Mississippi from making voting changes without federal oversight, it will be interesting to see whether minorities in Mississippi are able to enjoy the force of their high registration numbers.