Yes, Georgia’s new supremely racist voting law makes it illegal to bring food or water to people—meaning Black voters—waiting in long lines that are also the result of voter suppression. But it also seeks to disenfranchise Black voters in much more mundane ways, like making it harder to register. This is actually a kind of doubling-down, twofold approach to voter suppression efforts intended to keep the “wrong” sort of people from the polls. Because the history of America’s voter registration laws, like pretty much everything else in this country, is steeped in racism and nativism.
During the colonial and revolutionary eras, voting was a right conferred upon those who were white, male and landholding. As in Britain, this requirement rested on the absurd notion that only white men who owned property had a bona fide “stake in society,” meaning a true commitment to the well-being of their communities. There was also the matter of white Protestant supremacy, since Black—emancipated and enslaved—and native folks were largely denied the power of the ballot. Alexander Kessyar, author of The Right to Vote, notes that “Catholics were disenfranchised in five [colonies] and Jews in four.” In a 1776 letter, John Adams voiced support for these sorts of exclusionary policies, suggesting that the expansion of voting rights would open the floodgates to all kinds of chaos. “It is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters,” Adams wrote in the missive. “There will be no end of it.”
The 1788 ratification of the Constitution left suffrage matters to individual states, declaring in Article I, Section 4 that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” The states, in turn, overwhelmingly kept voting rights limited to wealthy white guys, leaving just 6 percent of the country eligible to vote in the first presidential election.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Kessyar writes, fears of elections being determined by “foreign-born transients” had begun to spread around the country. The formal system of voter registration, then as now, was depicted as a way to protect the integrity of elections. In 1801, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a voter registration law. By 1832, the first known case of what today might be called “voter purging” was alleged by a Boston man named Josiah Capen, who sued over his electoral rights being violated. Massachusetts’ Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiff, deciding the state’s voter registration system was totally lawful. In the years that followed, registration laws would begin to sweep the country. Many of these would be ushered in under the influence of the Whigs—the political party ultimately torn asunder by slavery, an institution the GOP opposed back then—who contended immigrants in cities were casting illegal votes and handing elections to Democrats.
Pennsylvania instituted its voter registration system in 1936, sending canvassers door-to-door within the confines of Philadelphia to gather information from potential voters. Keyssar writes that “although the proclaimed goal of the law was to reduce fraud, opponents insisted that its real intent was to reduce the participation of the poor—who were frequently not home when assessors came by and who did not have “big brass” nameplates on their doors.” Just a few years later in 1840, “Whigs succeeded in passing a registry law that applied only to New York City, which contained the largest concentration of Irish voters.” The legislation would be overturned within two years, but anti-immigrant sentiments would see the push for registration continue.
But of course, no one was systematically disenfranchised more than Black folks. The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott ruling established that American citizenship did not extend to people “imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not.” Exclusion from citizenship, of course, meant exclusion from voting rights. The ruling suggested this was just as well, since Black folks were considered “unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations.”
Just eight years later, the Southern Confederacy’s loss in the Civil War would result in Black emancipation and the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which enshrined Black citizenship and voting rights in the Constitution. Black suffrage, which immediately came under assault by violent white supremacists, would be rescinded under Jim Crow—a system that borrowed heavily from early registration laws. Poll taxes, literacy tests and residency stipulations—all previously embedded in registration systems—were everyday tools manufactured to stop Black folks from voting. Those laws would endure for nearly a century until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was finally passed to ensure Black suffrage.
“In Mississippi, black registration went from less than 10 percent in 1964 to almost 60 percent in 1968; in Alabama, the figure rose from 24 percent to 57 percent,” Kessymer writes. Across the south, “roughly a million new voters were registered within a few years after the bill became law, bringing African-American registration to a record 64 percent.”
So white conservatives have spent nearly every day since trying to dismantle the law. They succeeded greatly with SCOTUS’s defanging of a key provision in 2013. The fight to counter that effort and empower Black and disenfranchised voters has largely been led by Black women. In Georgia, first-term Governor Brian Kemp bitterly complained in 2014 that “Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.” In a 2018 contest against Georgia’s former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams for the governorship, Kemp oversaw massive voter roll purges and other kinds of racist trickery, including reportedly sitting on “53,000 voter registration applications,” 70 percent of which were submitted by Black registrants.
“The United States is one of the few democratized, industrialized nations that uses the piecemeal, inconsistent, state-by-state method of registration—and that puts the onus on the citizen to get on the rolls,” Abrams wrote in a June 2020 essay. “With the management of elections left to individual states, the fractured, disjointed process is key to voter suppression. Where registration is easier, voters are more likely to participate.”
Organizer efforts to “register all eligible, unregistered citizens of color in Georgia by the end of the decade” are frequently said to have turned Georgia blue in the elections that brought wins for President Joe Biden and Senators Raphael Warnock and John Ossof. What they really did was drive home how white Republicans have learned to update old-school racist voter suppression tactics to make them work today. The shameless transparent racism of the state’s new voting law is echoed in a deluge of voter disenfranchisement proposals pending in statehouses across the country — including 47 that pertain to “voter registration, 38 that would purge people from the voter rolls and 24 dealing with in-person early voting.”
Suppression on top of suppression, ad infinitum.
The For the People Act, which passed the House in early March, would make automatic voter registration the law of the land. If voter registration must continue as a prerequisite for voting—and while Republicans are trying to straight-up strip Black folks of voting rights—scrapping registration is low on the agenda, I realize. At the very least, it should be as easy as possible. But it seems worth it to keep calling voter registration out for what it is, which is voter suppression by another name.