History of Denying Black People the Vote Echoed in New Barriers


Since emancipation in 1865, many states have tried to block or restrict Black people from voting. For a century, states in the American South used disenfranchisement, violence, terror, intimidation, poll taxes, and a range of other tactics to deny African Americans the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to address this history of racially motivated barriers to voting, but many states continue to undermine voting opportunities in minority communities by enacting burdensome voter ID laws and resisting early voting and easier registration.
In a true perversion of this history, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill articulated a new justification for blocking automatic registration of voters when they turn 18 a reform civil rights leaders have sought for years when he argued that people should not be allowed to register to vote if they are “lazy.”  Bizarrely, he invoked civil rights leaders and their activism as support for his position.
During an interview released earlier this week, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill argued that allowing automatic voter registration would “cheapen the work” of voting rights activists including John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Rev. Jesse Jackson, A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, and Fred Gray. Mr. Merrill told filmmaker Brian Jenkins that automatic registration is “the sorry and lazy way out and it shows no initiative.” 
“Just because you turned 18 doesn’t give you the right to do anything,” Merrill said, in direct conflict with the 26th Amendment, which provides, “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”

“If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege,” Merrill said. “As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.”

Merrill’s comments prompted strong reactions from leaders in the civil rights community, who chastised the secretary of state for his failure to understand Alabama’s history of disenfranchising African American citizens.

After the Fifteenth Amendment barring racial discrimination in voting was adopted in 1870, Southern states and others continued to disenfranchise Black voters through poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and violent intimidation, killing many Black people who tried to vote. State laws disenfranchising people convicted of a felony also proliferated during this period, especially in Southern states with the largest populations of African Americans, where lawmakers were explicit about the need to suppress the Black vote.

In 1901, Alabama amended its Constitution to expand disenfranchisement to all crimes involving “moral turpitude” — which applied to misdemeanors and even non-criminal acts — after the president of the constitutional convention argued the state needed to avert the “menace of Negro domination.” Alabama today has one of the nation’s highest disenfranchisement rates: 15 percent of African American adults and nearly a third of African American men in Alabama have lost the right to vote.

The Voting Right Acts of 1965 passed despite opposition from Alabama lawmakers, who along with state and local officials spent the next five decades devising and employing new strategies to undermine the African American vote. Alabama is among a number of states that have recently enacted strict voter identification requirements. After the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, a United States Supreme Court case from Alabama, states in the South with a history of racial discrimination in voting were no longer required to obtain permission from the federal government to change voting laws, and many states adopted changes that directly targeted Black and Latino voters.

Automatic voter registration has emerged as an effective tool for increasing voter turnout, and civil rights heroes including John Lewis have strongly supported automatic registration as one remedy to address a century of excluding Black people from the vote.

Alabama’s long and violent history of erecting insurmountable obstacles for African American voters is not only a compelling reason to adopt policies like automatic registration that make it easier for Alabamians to vote — it also should disqualify Alabama officials from blaming citizens for not working harder to register to vote.

“If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege,” Merrill said.