Minority Voting Rights

February 28, 1975

A document from the CQ Researcher archives:

Report Outline
Impact of Voting Tights Act of 1965
Struggle of Negroes for Right to Vote
Ways to Increase Minority Leverage
Special Focus

Impact of Voting Tights Act of 1965

Shift of Black Demands from Street to Ballot

The voting rights ACT of 1965, often heralded as the most important civil rights legislation ever enacted, is due to expire this year unless Congress votes to extend it. The debate over extension will be conducted in a political climate far removed from the one in which President Johnson on March 17, 1965, asked Congress to guarantee the franchise to blacks and other minority men and women who were being denied that most fundamental of American rights—the right to vote. Civil rights marchers had been attacked only a few days earlier as they carried their protests against Negro disenfranchisement from Selma to Montgomery. Moreover, the old civil rights movement was beginning to give way to a new black militancy that found expression in street demonstrations and urban riots.

In more recent years, blacks have turned in greater numbers to the ballot box, often electing their own candidates and finding in the political process a means of voicing their hopes and hostilities. It is generally agreed that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was instrumental in bringing about this change. During the past 10 years, an estimated 2 million blacks have been added to the voting rolls in the South, bringing total registration to about 3.5 million. The number cannot be determined with any degree of precision because many of the states covered by the act do not maintain current voting and registration records by race. Proportionally fewer registration and voting gains have been made by the other minorities—Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and American Indians—covered by the act.

The 1965 law suspended literacy tests and other qualification devices1 and gave the Attorney General the power to appoint federal examiners to supervise voter registration in states or political subdivisions where such devices were in force on Nov. 1, 1964, and where fewer than 50 per cent of the voting-age residents were registered to vote on that date. Section 5 of the act stipulated that any new voting law enacted in an area covered by the act required the approval of the Attorney General or a three-judge district court for the District of Columbia. The areas affected were Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, 39 counties in North Carolina, Yuma County, Ariz., and Honolulu County, Hawaii.

When the act expired in 1970, Congress rejected the Nixon administration's proposal to make the law applicable nationwide—a proposal that civil rights advocates claimed would dilute its impact. The act was extended for five years and expanded to include areas which required literacy tests or similar devices, or where there was less than 50 per cent voter participation in the 1968 election. Three boroughs in New York City, eight more counties in Arizona, two in California, one in Idaho and one in Wyoming, and four districts in Alaska were included under the extension.

Issues in Debate Over Extension of Voting Act

President Ford, who as House Minority Leader wanted to apply the voting act nationwide in 1970, supports a straight five-year extension. A bill introduced by Reps. Don Edwards (D Calif.) and Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D N.J.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would extend it for 10 years and make the temporary ban on literacy tests permanent nationwide. Most civil rights groups support straight extension. They are hesitant to recommend amendments to the law for fear they might provoke lengthy debates and prevent Congress from acting before the Aug. 6 expiration date.

Opponents of the act are likely to encourage such debate. Sen. James B. Allen (D Ala.) introduced a bill last year to repeal section 4, which prohibits literacy tests, and section 5 of the 1965 law. Allen is expected to reintroduce a similar bill in the new 94th Congress. Others who oppose straight extension argue that the law is no longer needed in view of the progress made in the last decade. They say that a straight extension would discriminate unduly against the South and that if another extension is approved, it should apply nationwide.

J. Stanley Pottinger, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the agency with primary responsibility for enforcing the 1965 law, said last fall that “there is the ever-present danger that absent the guarantees of federal legislation, a reversion to past practices could occur.”2 The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said in January 1975: “…The protection provided by the Voting Rights Act is still needed. Violations of the rights of minorities continue, and minorities remain disproportionately underrepresented in the voting process and in elective office.” The Commission recommended that “the act should now be extended for 10 years.”3

Change in Minority Participation in Ten Years

Minority political participation has increased substantially in the last 10 years, the commission found. “There are more minority citizens registered, voting, running for office and holding office than at any time in the nation's past,” it said. “Though the potential of minority political participation has yet to be realized, the progress in the last 10 years is striking. A large part of this progress is due directly or indirectly to the impact of the Voting Rights Act.”

Nevertheless, the Commission reported that surveys conducted after the 1972 general election showed that the “minority turnout nationally was significantly lower than [the] white turnout.” It reported the following voter turnout as a percentage of persons of voting age in each group:27

White 64.5 Puerto Rican 44.6
Black 52.1 Mexican-American 37.4

While minority voting has fallen short of what civil rights advocates had hoped for, it has had considerable impact on the two major parties. A recent study by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center, “Social Conflict and Political Estrangement,” found that black identification with the Democratic Party declined from more than 56 per cent in 1964 to 37.7 per cent in 1972 while the number of black independents rose from 4 per cent to 11.5 per cent during that time. Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political Studies, concluded that the November 1974 elections signified “blacks do not automatically perceive Republicans to be the enemy and they do in fact support some liberal Republicans and deny support to some liberal Democrats. What the …results also suggest is that in partisan elections the black vote is far less predictable than it once was or as some would like to believe it is.”4

Minority influence extends from presidential contests, where it can swing a close election, to elections for county commissioners and sheriffs. In districts with a sizable minority population, white candidates have largely forsaken segregationist appeals and are courting black voters.

The most publicized instance of this trend involved Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama. When Wallace first took the oath of office as governor in 1963, he proclaimed: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When he took the oath again 12 years later, on Jan. 20, he pledged: “The people in government in this state are concerned with all our citizens, whether they be black or white. It shall continue this way.”5 Charles Fulwood, a black journalist writing in the November 1974 issue of Ramparts, estimated that between 15 and 20 per cent of the blacks in Alabama voted for Wallace in the May 1974 primary election.

Increase in Number of Black Elected Officials

Another important effect of the Voting Rights Act has been the increase in the number of blacks seeking and winning elective office. In 1964, according to the Civil Rights Commission, fewer than 100 blacks held elective office in the seven southern states later covered by the Voting Rights Act. Ten years later, the Joint Center for Political Studies reported in its April 1974 “National Roster of Black Elected Officials,” the number stood at 963.6 While these gains were impressive, blacks still represented less than 2 per cent of all elected officials in those states. Nationwide, the center counted 2,991 black persons in elective office in 45 states and the District of Columbia, more than twice as many as in 1969, the first year a tally was made. The yearly figures were:

Year Total Increase From Previous Year
1969 1,185 0 0%
1970 1,469 284 24%
1971 1,860 391 26%
1972 2,264 404 22%
1973 2,621 357 15%
1974 2,991 370 14%

A survey by the Center after the November 1974 elections showed that blacks had won 27 seats in state legislatures, giving them a total of 270, up from 94 a decade earlier.7 In Congress, Harold E. Ford (D Tenn.) joined 15 other black representatives and one senator, Edward W. Brooke (R Mass.). Black lieutenant governors were elected in Colorado (George L. Brown) and California (Mervyn M. Dymally). Brown and Dymally, like Senator Brooke, were elected from predominantly white constituencies. This, however, has not been the general trend. According to the Civil Rights Commission, “Most offices held by blacks are relatively minor and located in small municipalities or counties with overwhelmingly black populations.”

Other minorities covered by the Voting Rights Act also achieved a number of elective offices, the Commission found. In Arizona, three Indians were elected to the state legislature in 1974 from predominantly Navajo districts. In Tucson, Mexican-Americans hold two of five city council seats and one of five school board seats though they account for only 24 per cent of the city's population. Men with Spanish names won the governorship of Arizona (Raul H. Castro) and of New Mexico (Jerry Apodaca) in 1974. Black mayors, more than 100 nationwide, preside in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Dayton, Gary, Newark, and Washington, D.C.

Edward Greer, a political science professor writing in The Nation, Nov. 23, 1974, predicted that within a decade “a full third of American blacks will live in cities with black administrations.” Moreover, “these administrations will tend to become focal points for the entire black liberation movement.” If so, it is likely that organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, the Black Legislative Clearing House and the National Black Political Assembly will become far more active in assisting elected black officials.

Continuing Impediments to More Minority Voting

While enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and the outlawing of poll taxes8 have removed the most obvious and formidable barriers to minority political participation, a number of not-so-obvious impediments remain. Numerous studies9 have found that minority registration was hampered by inconvenient hours and locations, onerous re-registration requirements, failure to publicize registration times and places, dual registration in some areas, lack of minority registrars, uncooperative or hostile behavior of white registrars and unnecessarily complex forms.

James R. Steilen said that “a more intangible barrier is created by psychological inhibitions against entering a white neighborhood or the offices of a local government which may have been controlled by a white power structure for hundreds of years. …The psychological burden is of a subtle nature which can easily be underestimated, especially if the registrars and the community are not overtly racist.”10

Many of the impediments to minority registration also apply to voting. On election day, there may be nobody able to assist non-English speaking persons and illiterates, an inability of the clerks to find the names of minority voters on the lists, and abuses of absentee ballot procedures. Barriers to potential minority candidates are high filing fees, legal restrictions on independent or third-party candidates, exclusion of poll watchers, and lack of assistance from local white officials. The Civil Rights Commission has reported that minority candidates also have been hindered by gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts along racial lines and at-large elections.

Jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act are required to submit all changes in voting laws, practices and procedures to the Justice Department or U.S. District Court. Section 5 was little used until after the Supreme Court held in Allen v. State Board of Elections (1969) that the section should be interpreted broadly and that “all changes, no matter how small,” be subjected to scrutiny. Since 1970, the Justice Department has put “priority emphasis” on pre-clearance of election law changes, Assistant Attorney General Pottinger told the Congressional Black Caucus on Sept. 27, 1974. In the preceding five years, he said, over 4,000 changes had been submitted to the Attorney General, who rejected 174 of them.

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Struggle of Negroes for Right to Vote

Virtual Exclusion of Blacks Before the Civil War

Black americans have never been totally excluded from the polls. The Constitution did not specifically guarantee a right to vote nor did it lay down qualifications for voting. The right to vote was determined by state legislatures. These bodies gave and withdrew the right “at whim.” North Carolina “gave blacks this freedom in 1667 and withdrew it in 1715. This withdrawal was repealed in 1734, but the right to vote was again withdrawn in 1835. In 1821, New York decreased its black electorate by enlarging the amount of property a black person had to have before he could qualify to vote.”11

Before the Civil War, only five states—Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont—did not disenfranchise Negroes by statute or constitutional provisions. A first step toward national Negro enfranchisement was President Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, during the war, declaring free the slaves in states then “in rebellion.” Several southern states reacted immediately after the war by enacting “Black Codes” barring the former slaves from office or the ballot. Radical Republicans in Congress, outraged by the turn of events, passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867 establishing military governments in the South. As a condition for lifting military rule, the southern states had to ratify the 14th Amendment guaranteeing the Negro full citizenship rights and equal protection of the law. Section 2 specified a statewide penalty—the state's delegation to Congress would be reduced in proportion to the number of males above age 21 who were denied the vote for reasons other than the commission of a crime.

By 1870 all of the southern states had ratified the 14th Amendment.12 That same year, the 15th Amendment became part of the Constitution. It held: “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” and “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Congress promptly passed the Enforcement Act placing criminal penalties on state officials who failed to provide all citizens with equal opportunity to qualify to vote and on anyone who used violence, intimidation or conspiracies to interfere with registration and voting. A second statute authorized federal officers to supervise elections.

Effectiveness of Postwar Southern Resistance

Under the conditions imposed by the federal government for a decade after the war, many southern blacks were elected to important positions. Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina had Negro lieutenant governors. Between 1869 and 1901, 22 blacks were sent to Congress from the South, including two Negro senators from Mississippi. However, the enfranchisement of former slaves, most of whom were poor, illiterate and easily manipulated, contributed to political and economic chaos in the states of the old Confederacy.

This chaos, combined with southern white frustration and a growing weariness in the North, led to the reemergence of un-contested white power in the South. When the last federal troops were withdrawn in April 1877, the remaining Radical Reconstruction governments quickly disintegrated. Some Negroes continued to vote for a few years, but by 1900 “all factions united in a white man's party once more, to put the Negro finally beyond the pale of political activity.”13

Southern Negro disenfranchisement was accomplished through intricate election laws, manipulation of election machinery and, when necessary, by the threat of violence. Discriminatory devices included poll taxes and literacy tests, white primaries and grandfather clauses.14 “By 1910, every former Confederate state had either disenfranchised the Negro by constitutional amendments, or deprived him of his political effectiveness by means of the Democratic white primary,” the Civil Rights Commission noted in its 1963 report, “Freedom to the Free.” More subtle practices limited black political participation in the North. With the exception of Chicago, white-controlled city machines excluded Negroes from any significant role in politics for the first half of this century. During that time, Congress did virtually nothing to encourage black voting and the courts generally did not take an activist role in enforcing the 15th Amendment and other Negro suffrage laws.

Early Civil Rights Decisions; 1950S Legislation

Supreme Court decisions affecting black voting rights were concerned chiefly with election laws in the South. In an 1898 decision, Williams v. Mississippi, the Court upheld that state's right to impose a poll tax. The High Court outlawed the grandfather clause in Guinn v. United States (1915), a case arising in Oklahoma. The first important decision invalidating the white primary came in 1944 in Smith v. Allwright.

Because victory in a southern Democratic primary was tantamount to election, the small number of registered blacks were as effectively stripped of political rights as the vast unregistered majority. The Court rejected southern arguments that the Democratic Party was a private organization and thus its primaries were not subject to the limitations of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Literacy tests were not eliminated until Congress approved the 1970 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. Later that year, in Mitchell v. Oregon, the Court unanimously upheld the ban on literacy tests.

By 1936, there was a marked shift in Negro political allegiance. Masses of Negroes turned away from the Republican Party, which had delivered them from slavery. They had responded to Franklin D. Roosevelt's courtship of their votes through social programs and the appointment of blacks to posts in his administration. “Nothing in the politics of the New Deal was more daring than the project of combining in the same party the descendants of the slave-holders and the descendants of the slaves.”15 Robert Sam Anson, writing recently in New Times magazine, noted that the black vote is “the last solid bloc remaining in the old FDR coalition.” While blacks total only slightly more than 10 per cent of the general population, they account for “nearly 25 per cent of the Democratic total in a typical election year.”16

The first significant civil rights law since Reconstruction was passed in 1957. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 affirmed the right of a citizen to seek a court injunction to protect his voting rights, and it empowered the Attorney General to seek injunctions against persons who violated those rights. The law also created a federal Civil Rights Commission, with subpoena powers to investigate and report violations of voting rights, and established a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department.

The 1957 act failed to take account of the ingenuity of southern registrars in sidestepping or ignoring the law. Accordingly, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 made states themselves liable to suits for voting rights violations. It further authorized the courts to appoint referees to help Negroes register and vote. While these laws were often ignored or circumvented, they, along with court decisions and growing public interest in civil rights, were responsible in large measure for an increase in black registration in the South from an estimated 250,000 in 1940—less than 5 per cent of the eligible Negroes—to about 1.5 million by 1964.

Rise in Negro Protest Over Disenfranchisement

More than congressional or court action, the increase in black registration and voting in the South could be attributed to the voter registration campaigns and civil rights marches in the early 1960s. In February 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Sncc) set up the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (Mfdp) to challenge the segregationist Democratic Party in the state. That August, the new party challenged the legitimacy of the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City on the basis that the members had been chosen in a primary election in which Negroes had been denied the right to vote. While Mfdp lost that battle and a subsequent attempt to prevent the Mississippi congressional delegation from being seated in the House of Representatives, it did succeed in publicizing and arousing considerable sympathy for black disenfranchisement in the South.

Sncc also organized the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama to spur Negro registration and run black candidates for office. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Naacp), the Congress of Racial Equality (Core), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Sclc) and Sncc organized biracial demonstrations to protest Negro disenfranchisement. The most consequential of these was the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in early 1965. Martin Luther King Jr., president of Sclc, chose Selma for a number of reasons. By law, registration took place in Dallas County, of which Selma was the county seat, only two days a month.

To register, an applicant was required to fill in more than 50 blanks, write from dictation a part of the Constitution, answer four questions on the governmental process, read four passages and answer four questions on them, and sign loyalty oaths to the United States and Alabama. The 1960 census showed that Dallas County had a voting age population of 14,400 whites and 15,115 Negroes. Yet when the Selma campaign began on Jan. 18, 1965, there were 9,542 whites registered and only 335 blacks. Between May 1962 and August 1964, 93 of the 795 Negroes who applied to register were enrolled, compared to 945 of the 1,232 white applicants.

Fifty thousand blacks and whites from all over the country joined the march. A white minister was clubbed to death and many others were beaten. And on March 7, 1965, acting on orders from Governor Wallace, state troopers used tear gas, night sticks and whips to halt the march to Montgomery, severely injuring about 40 demonstrators. Ten days later, President Johnson submitted his voting rights proposal to Congress. The law that was signed the following Aug. 6 was considerably broader than the original bill.

According to tabulations by the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta-based research and information service, the number of registered Negro voters rose by about 938,000 between 1964 and 1968 in the 11 states of the old Confederacy. The Civil Rights Commission reported voter registration, in terms of a percentage of the non-white population, as follows:

Prior to Prior to
State 1965 1968 State 1965 1968
Ala. 19.3 51.6 N.C. 46.8 51.3
Ark. 40.4 62.8 S.C. 37.3 51.2
Fla. 51.2 63.6 Tenn. 69.5 71.7
Ga. 27.4 52.6 Texas 53.1 61.6
La. 31.6 58.9 Va. 38.3 55.6
Miss. 6.7 59.8      
Increased black voting was accompanied by greater white voting. In 1960, the 11 states accounted for only 14.9 per cent of the votes cast nationally; eight years later, the figure had risen to 20.2 per cent.

Action by Congress and Courts Since Voting Act

Despite black political gains after 1965, Negro leaders grew critical of what they considered the federal government's failure to enforce the act. As early as 1967, the so-called “Year of the Black Mayor” when Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland and Richard Hatcher of Gary and when Walter Washington was appointed mayor17 of Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. could write: “Just as the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 proclaimed Negro suffrage, only to permit its de facto withdrawal in half the nation, so in 1965 the Voting Rights Law was passed and then permitted to languish with only fractional and halfhearted implementation.”18

By 1970, when the Voting Rights Act was due to expire, many blacks were fearful that Congress would not extend it or would weaken it so that it would be virtually useless. This fear was compounded by the collapse of the biracial coalition that had been so effective in pushing earlier civil-rights legislation, a general feeling in the country that blacks had gone too far and too fast, and what was perceived as the Nixon administration's inattention or hostility to civil rights and the black community.

The two principal criticisms of the Justice Department's implementation of the act were that the department had failed to review state and local actions affecting the right to vote under Section 5 and had been lax in providing federal examiners and observers to ensure minorities the right to register and vote. During 1969 and 1970, the Nixon administration advocated the repeal of Section 5. When Congress refused to repeal it in the 1970 extension, the administration waited until Sept. 10,1971, to adopt regulations for implementing the section. Before the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that Section 5 covered even minor changes in election laws, there had been only about 200 formal complaints submitted to the Justice Department under that section. The 1969 decision and subsequent decisions19 caused the division to place more emphasis on enforcement.

Criticism of examiner and observer programs centers on their size and diligence. The Civil Rights Commission reported that examiners “have been used sparingly.” In the 10 years that the act has been in effect, only 60 counties and parishes20 have had examiners; none went to North Carolina or Virginia. There have been no federal examiners in the South since the fall of 1971. The number of federal observers sent to monitor elections has also declined. Since 1965, more than 6,500 observers have been sent to five southern states, almost half of them to Mississippi. According to the Justice Department, 1,093 federal observers watched elections in 1968, 350 in 1972, and 430 in 1974. They went to only five states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Some black leaders contend that had the government used more observers and examiners and moved against the more subtle forms of discrimination, there would not have been the downturn in black voting in 1972.

John Lewis, executive director of the Voter Education Project in Atlanta, blames Congress for hampering his organization's voter registration efforts. In 1969, Congress enacted a law which prevents such organizations from receiving more than 25 per cent of their support from one foundation and prohibits the use of foundation grants to finance voter registration programs in more than one state or in more than one “election season.” Others, however, insist that any decline in black or minority registration and voting is due almost exclusively to apathy or disillusionment with the political process.

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Ways to Increase Minority Leverage

View of Politics As Key to Minority Progress

Black leaders, from Marxist intellectual W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) to Martin Luther King Jr. and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, viewed politics as the key to Negro progress. DuBois argued: “The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defense …else what shall save us from a second slavery?”21 More than 10 years ago, King wrote in Why We Can't Wait (1964): “Consciously and creatively developed, political power may well, in the days to come, be the most effective new tool of the Negro's liberation.” More recently, Jackson insisted: “We're going to need a great deal more power, both in actual numbers and in possibilities for leveraging power. …In the end, my guess is that politics will precede economics.”22

Chuck Stone, a black activist, wrote in 1968: “Until black voters begin to demand more jobs and appointments for their support, politicians will continue to seek the black vote only as a necessary balance of power to guarantee the margin of victory. …”23

A study by the research department of the Joint Center for Political Studies, published in the April 1974 issue of Focus, suggested that the kind of effective pressure Stone envisioned was still far from a reality. The study found that 41 per cent of the members of Congress who represented districts with large black populations supported the Congressional Black Caucus on fewer than one-third of the votes of importance to blacks in the 1973 session. The lowest level of support came from southern Republicans, followed by southern Democrats.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been making more effort to attract blacks and other minority voters. In December 1974, the GOP Rule 29 Committee24 issued a report recommending that the Republican Party adopt a nationwide program to encourage more participation by blacks, other ethnic minorities, women, youth and the elderly in party activities and provide mechanisms at every political level to facilitate the participation of these groups.

The Democratic Party, at its “mini-convention” in Kansas City the same month, was under pressure from blacks and Chicanos who demanded, and in some instances won, changes in the party charter that was approved at the meeting. One victory involved Section 6, which in its final form put the burden of proof for non-discriminatory delegate selection on the state convention delegation being challenged, not on the challengers. Ronald W. Walters, a Howard University political science professor, wrote that “as a result of the Kansas City meeting, an effective black leadership has emerged inside the party. Black Democrats must now maintain the coalitions they formed at Kansas City and use them to win support on critical issues.”25

Postcard Registration as Aid to Participation

Minority and majority influence in the political process is largely dependent on the willingness and the ability of various groups to exercise their right to vote. But voter participation has shown a steady decline for more than a decade. Sixty-four per cent of the voting age population voted in the presidential election of 1960. This declined to 62.9 per cent in 1964, 61.8 per cent in 1968 and 55 per cent in 1972. Voting in off-year congressional elections during this period also declined.

Obstacles include restrictive residency requirements, complex registration and absentee voting procedures and inconvenient hours and places of registration and voting. Census Bureau surveys show that 87 per cent of those who succeed in registering also vote. Because the present system has resulted in lower registration among minorities, the poor, the uneducated and the very old than it has among the more affluent, any reform in the electoral system aimed at encouraging voter participation would tend to be of greater benefit to these groups.

One of the reforms being advocated is registration by mail, often referred to as postcard registration. Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Texas already have adopted registration by mail and they report sizable increases in voter turnout. Legislatures in a number of other states are considering or will consider postcard registration this year. In Congress, the Senate in 1974 passed a bill, introduced by Sen. Gale W. McGee (D Wyo.), to establish a Voter Registration Administration within the General Accounting Office to implement and oversee a system of postcard voter registration for federal elections. A companion bill in the House was not acted on.

Similar bills are expected to be introduced in 1975 by McGee and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D N.Y.). The National Board of the League of Women Voters endorsed registration by mail on Jan. 14, 1975, and many observers, noting the more liberal makeup of the new Congress, expect a registration-by-mail bill to be passed this year. Opposition is likely to center, as it has in the past, on the cost of such a system, the possibility of large-scale fraud, and various administrative problems. Cost estimates range from $15 million to $500 million.

Other suggestions include door-to-door registration, the use of mobile or neighborhood registration units, permanent registration, and widespread dissemination of registration and election information. Advocates of postcard registration insist that most existing voter-registration systems require far too much information.

Recurring Debate Over Black Separatist Party

Minority influence in politics is hampered not only by registration and voting difficulties, apathy or disillusionment but by disagreements on what programs the various groups want and the best ways of achieving their goals. This fragmentation and the resulting lack of leverage has led, over the years, to efforts to set up separate political parties. As early as 1883, Negroes in Pennsylvania organized the Colored Independent Party. In neighboring Ohio, blacks organized the Negro Protective Party before the turn of the century.

More recent examples of black political parties are the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization of Alabama. The latter was organized in early 1966 by Stokely Carmichael to run candidates for county offices. The organization took as its symbol the black panther and was dubbed the Black Panther Party. The California-based Black Panther Party, set up later by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, took its name, if not its politics, from the Alabama group.

The seeds of a national black political party were sown at the first National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., in March 1972. A Black Political Assembly was created by the more than 8,000 delegates who attended the meeting. According to Imama Baraka (Leroi Jones), the man who conceived the idea of the Assembly, it was to function like a congressional body. “But it would also endorse candidates, support candidates, run national voter education and registration drives, lobby for black issues and make recommendations” to the black community.26

Efforts to turn the Assembly into a political party came to a head at the second National Black Convention in Little Rock two years later. Most elected black officials, who tend to favor cooperation with the liberal wings of the two major parties, boycotted the meeting. A Baraka-supported motion to establish a black political party was tabled.

At a meeting in New York City in early February 1975, the Assembly decided to run an independent black presidential candidate in 1976. Despite the agreement, there was considerable bickering between the moderates and the black nationalists, led by Baraka. Hannah D. Atkins, a Democratic state representative from Oklahoma and one of the few elected officials still active in the group, resigned because of what she called Baraka's dominance of the Assembly and his rejection of black-white political cooperation.

While many blacks contend that the two major political parties have made only token concessions, the trend appears to be for blacks and other minority groups to work within the existing system rather than outside of it. Coalition politics may be anathema to militant separatists, but pragmatists argue that a go-it-alone strategy is self-defeating because minorities do not have the numerical strength to win any significant number of elective offices. It seems likely that racial minorities will adopt the same balance-of-power strategy that the Irish, the Jews and the Italians have done. Loyalty will depend not on what the party or candidate promises, but on the actual fulfillment of those promises.

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Bond, Julian, A Time to Speak, A Time to Act, Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Davidson, Chandler, Biracial Politics, Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

King, Martin Luther Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Harper & Row, 1967.

Myrdal, Gunnar, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Harper & Row, 1944.

Stone, Chuck, Black Political Power in America, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968.

Walton, Hanes Jr., Black Politics, J. B. Lippincott, 1972.

Watters, Pat and Reese Cleghorn, Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Arrival of Negroes in Southern Politics, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967.


Anson, Robert Sam, “The New Hustlers,” New Times, Feb. 21, 1975.

Delaney, Paul, “The Black Mayors,” Tuesday Magazine, November 1974.

Ebony, selected issues.

Focus, selected issues.

Fulwood, Charles, “Blacks for Wallace,” Ramparts, November 1974.

Greer, Edward, “Black Power in the Big Cities,” The Nation, Nov. 23, 1974.

Kilson, Martin, “From Civil Rights to Party Politics: The Black Political Transition,” Current History, November 1974.

McKay, Robert B., “Racial Discrimination in the Electoral Process,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May 1973.

Steilen, James R., “Access to Voter Registration,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, May 1974.

Wilkins, Roger, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping,” The New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1974.

Reports and Studies

Commission on Civil Rights, “The Federal Civil Rights Enforcement Effort,” selected years.

Commission on Civil Rights, “The Voting Rights Act: Ten Years After,” January 1975.

Congressional Quarterly, Congress and the Nation, Vols. I (1965), II (1969) and III (1973).

Department of Commerce, “Population Characteristics: Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1972,” 1973.

Editorial Research Reports, “Negro Voting,” 1964 Vol. II, p. 743; “Negro Power Struggle,” 1968 Vol. I, p. 123; “Black Americans, 1963–1973,” 1973 Vol. II, p. 623.

Joint Center for Political Studies, selected studies.

League of Women Voters' Education Fund, “Administrative Obstacles to Voting,” 1972.

Washington Research Project, “The Shameful Blight: The Survival of Racial Discrimination in Voting in the South,” October 1972.

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[1] The act defines a “test or device” as a requirement that a person (1) demonstrate the ability to read, write or understand or interpret any matter, (2) demonstrate any educational achievement or knowledge of any particular subject, (3) possess good moral character or (4) have his qualifications attested to by other registered voters.

[2] Speech to the congressional Black Caucus, Sept. 27, 1974. The Black Caucus was formed by 7 black members of the House of Representatives in January 1969. It now has 17 members—16 House members and a non-voting delegate from the District of Columbia.

[3] U.S. Civil Rights Commission, “The Voting Rights Act: Ten Years Later,” January 1975.

[4] Writing in Focus, monthly newsletter of the Joint Center for Political Studies, December 1974, p. 2. The Center is a Washington-based, non-partisan, non-profit organization established by Howard University and the Metropolitan Applied Research Center to provide information and assistance to the nation's minority elected officials.

[5] The Justice Department announced Feb. 6 that it was investigating the Alabama state constitutional amendment which allowed Wallace to succeed himself as governor. The state did not submit this change to either the Justice Department or U.S. District Court, as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

[6] The number included one member of the House of Representatives, 36 state legislators, 429 county and 497 municipal officials.

[7] Big gains in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina were attributed to candidates running for the first time in single-member districts.

[8] The poll tax was outlawed in federal elections by the 24th amendment, ratified Jan. 23, 1964. The U.S. Supreme Court in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections and Butts v. Harrison (1966) ruled that state poll taxes violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and were illegal in state elections.

[9] Including the Civil Rights Commission's 10-year appraisal of the Voting Rights Act, the Washington Research Project report “The Shameful Blight: The Survival of Racial Discrimination in Voting in the South” (October 1972), and the League of Women Voters' report “Administrative Obstacles to Voting” (1972).

[10] “Access to Voter Registration,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, May 1974, p. 493.

[11] Hanes Walton Jr., Black Politics (1972), pp. 33–34.

[12] Though in some cases the circumstances led to later disputes as to the validity of the action. Nevertheless, the Amendment officially became part of the Constitution on July 28, 1866.

[13] Paul Lewinson, Race, Class and Party (1932), p. 194.

[14] Persons could vote if they could establish that their grandfathers had voted. This excluded southern Negroes whose grandfathers had been slaves.

[15] Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: ThePolitics of Upheaval (1960), p. 426.

[16] Robert Sam Anson, “The New Hustlers,” New Times, Feb. 21, 1975.

[17] Actually commissioner, though the post was mayoral in function and he was popularly known as mayor.

[18] Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), p. 81.

[19] An important decision was Georgia v. United States (1973) in which the Supreme Court held that “Section 5 is not concerned with a simple inventory of voting procedures, but rather with the reality of changed practices as they affect Negro voting.”

[20] Parishes in Louisiana are equivalent to counties in other states.

[21] Quoted by Hanes Walton Jr., op. cit, p. 3.

[22] Quoted by Roger Wilkins in The New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1974, p. 48.

[23] Chuck Stone, Black Political Power in America (1968), p. 81.

[24] The committee was set up at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami to study the party's rules.

[25] “Opening Up the Democrats,” Focus, January 1975, p. 5.

[26] Quoted by Alex Foinsett, “Unity Without Uniformity,” Ebony, June 1972, p. 54.

[27] No figure was available for American Indian voting.

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Special Focus

Alabama 149 Mississippi 191
Alaska 6 Missouri 93
Arizona 10 Nebraska 2
Arkansas 150 Nevada 6
California 132 New Hampshire 1
Colorado 13 New Jersey 152
Connecticut 132 New Mexico 4
Delaware 8 New York 174
District of Columbia 8 North Carolina 159
Florida 73 Ohio 139
Georgia 137 Oklahoma 66
Idaho 1 Oregon 6
Illinois 152 Pennsylvania 83
Indiana 55 Rhode Island 7
Iowa 9 South Carolina 116
Kansas 25 Tennessee 87
Kentucky 59 Texas 124
Louisiana 149 Vermont 2
Maine 5 Virginia 63
Maryland 65 Washington 15
Massachusetts 23 West Virginia 5
Michigan 194 Wisconsin 14
Minnesota 8 Wyoming 1

For federal, state and local offices as of April 1974.

Source: Joint Center for Political Studies
  Senate House
  Before After Before After
  Nov. 5, Nov. 5, Nov. 5, Nov. 5,
State 1974 1974 1974 1974
Alabama 0 2 3 13
Alaska 0 0 2 1
Arizona 0 0 2 2
Arkansas 1 1 3 3
California 1 1 6 6
Colorado 1 0 3 2
Connecticut 1 1 5 4
Delaware 1 1 2 2
Florida 0 0 3 3
Georgia 2 2 14 21
Illinois 5 5 14 16
Indiana 1 1 6 5
Iowa 0 0 1 1
Kansas 1 1 4 4
Kentucky 1 1 2 2
Louisiana 0 0 8 8
Maine 0 0 1 1
Maryland 4 5 15 13
Massachusetts 0 1 5 7
Michigan 2 4 11 11
Minnesota 1 1 1 1
Mississippi 0 0 1 1
Missouri 2 2 13 12
Montana 0 0 0 1
Nebraska 1 1 0 0
Nevada 1 1 2 2
New Jersey 1 1 6 1
New Mexico 0 0 1 1
New York 3 3 11 10
North Carolina 0 2 3 4
Ohio 2 2 9 9
Oklahoma 1 1 3 3
Oregon 0 0 1 1
Pennsylvania 2 3 11 11
Rhode Island 0 0 1 1
South Carolina 0 0 3 13
Tennessee 2 1 7 8
Texas 0 0 8 9
Virginia 1 1 1 1
Washington 1 1 1 1
West Virginia 0 0 1 1
Wisconsin 1 1 2 2
Totals 40 47 196 223

States not listed had no black legislators.

Did not hold a legislative election in 1974.

Source: Joint Center for Political Studies

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Document APA Citation
Costello, M. (1975). Minority voting rights. Editorial research reports 1975 (Vol. I). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1975022800
Document ID: cqresrre1975022800
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1975022800
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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May 18, 2012  Voter Rights
Sep. 15, 2006  Voting Controversies
Oct. 29, 2004  Voting Rights
Feb. 28, 1975  Minority Voting Rights
Apr. 18, 1962  Protection of Voting Rights
Mar. 19, 1958  Right to Vote
Feb. 24, 1954  Eighteen-Year-Old and Soldier Voting
Sep. 13, 1932  The Solid South and Political Sectionalism
Jun. 18, 1928  Voting and Non-Voting in Elections
Civil Rights: African Americans
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Voting and Suffrage
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