When challenged in court or in public debate, Republicans often falsely claim that their voter suppression legislation is non-discriminatory — that their bills are simply an effort to enhance election security and do not target specific groups of voters who don’t support them on Election Day. In today’s Data Dive, we delve into a new study in the American Political Science Review that looks at over 100 years of hard data about registration and race in Louisiana and confirms what both parties know: Southern states have long suppressed the votes of Black citizens, in targeted and intentional ways, using policies that did not have proportionate harm on white registration rates.
In “Suppressing Black Votes: A Historical Case Study of Voting Restrictions in Louisiana,” scholars Luke Keele, William Cubbison and Ismail White examine a century’s worth of disenfranchisement efforts in Louisiana and demonstrate how a combination of policy and personnel ensured that Black voters were targeted with precision and efficiency — and how the implementation of new voting laws that had the unintended consequence of disenfranchising white voters, too, were quickly modified and refined to only limit Black registration and turnout.
Here are the key takeaways:
1. Louisiana honed its voter suppression laws to ensure they only targeted Black voters.
Some voter suppression mechanisms embraced at the start of the 20th century were so sweeping that they reduced all voter registrations significantly. Louisiana’s 1898 Constitution established new poll taxes and property and literacy requirements in order to register to vote. Although they included a Grandfather Clause, which essentially allowed white men to avoid these requirements if they descended from someone who had voting rights in the state previously, the study found that many poor whites in the state did not take advantage of this exception. The effect of the state’s constitution was to almost completely disenfranchise Black voters in the state — but it also saw a 40% drop in white registration over the next two years.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Grandfather Clause in Guinn v. United States (1915), Louisiana lawmakers looked for new ways to suppress only Black voters without also reducing voting access for whites. Their solution, which was enacted at another constitutional convention in 1921, was something called an “Understanding Clause,” already in use in many other Southern states. The Clause required any voters to “give a ‘reasonable interpretation’ of a section of the state’s constitution” as part of their registration requirements. If they could not read, a section would be read to them for their interpretation — a provision that ensured illiterate white residents would be able to pass the requirement. During the decades which the Understanding Clause was in use in Louisiana, the study estimates that the Clause reduced Black registration rates by over 30%, but only impacted white registration rates by 2.5%. Louisiana lawmakers had found a reliable way to disenfranchise Black residents while barely impacting the ballot access of white voters — an outcome that depended on local officials being granted significant discretion to decide when they applied the law.
2. Granting enforcement discretion to local officials allows for discriminatory and unequal application of the law.
Technically, the Understanding Clause applied to all voters — and it should have disenfranchised white men just as much as Black men. But the researchers found that, in practice, local election officials used the Clause to disenfranchise Black voters at much higher rates than whites, because they could. The 1921 Constitution purposefully left vague how to implement the Clause, and did not define its requirements (such as what defined a “reasonable interpretation” of the state constitution). As such, local officials could largely decide when to apply the Clause, and what counted as a correct answer — which gave them the ability to discriminate against Black voters almost completely unchecked.
The Understanding Clause showed how important the regulation of local discretion is in ensuring that a law is fairly applied to all citizens. The study found that in the Louisiana parishes that began enforcing the Clause (largely between 1955 and 1965), Black registration rates plummeted while white rates remained mostly steady. Parishes that did not enforce the Clause (which also happened to be areas of the state with smaller Black populations) saw Black registration stay relatively consistent during the same period, trending upwards on average. Overall, the report concludes, the “use of the Understanding Clause worked as intended…it allowed local voting officials to apply what should have been a strict standard to voters differentially by race.” The Clause was outlawed in 1965, after the Supreme Court decision in Louisiana v. United States (1965) ruled that such a test was unconstitutionally discriminatory and illegally disenfranchised Black voters in the state.
3. Unless federal oversight targets the discriminatory intention of these laws, rather than the specific mechanisms, state lawmakers continue to find workarounds.
The conclusion of this study is simple, but also discouraging: laws that are not explicitly discriminatory in their written language can easily be used as powerful, racist weapons if local election officials are granted freedom of discretion over who they subject to the legislation’s restrictions. So how can the courts and the federal government protect minority voters from this type of legislation effectively? It’s clear that the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Grandfather Clause did not significantly protect Black voters in Louisiana from disenfranchisement — the state government just came up with new ways to target them.
However, one piece of federal legislation significantly improved and protected Black voter registration rates in Louisiana for many decades: the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). Following the VRA’s passage, the impact of the Understanding Clause on Black registration rates was effectively reversed, with registrations jumping 30% in parishes that had been enforcing the Clause. The striking down of the Grandfather Clause was the right decision — but it only addressed one specific state provision that had discriminatory effects.
The VRA was so effective because it took a wide view of discriminatory voting laws, establishing federal enforcement mechanisms to monitor and veto election laws in jurisdictions with histories of disenfranchising their citizens based on race. It was a hugely powerful tool that allowed federal courts and examiners to protect Black voters not only from specific laws, but from the broad intent of many Southern legislators: to disenfranchise them in new and creative ways, in perpetuity, by leveraging the discretionary powers of local officials to enforce voting laws along racial lines.
Without the protections of the VRA and Section 5 (struck down by a conservative Supreme Court in 2013), Republicans can take advantage of the leeway that local discretion provides to target voters they don’t want casting a ballot — and history has shown that nothing short of sweeping federal legislation (like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act currently being considered by Congress) can sufficiently address this disenfranchisement.