Meanwhile, however, I would like once again to offer something different to the whole historical question rights in the United States. Every commentator presents it as exclusively a racial question, involving the preservation of white supremacy. That it undoubtedly was, from the time of Reconstruction until at least 1965, and I certainly agree that there is a racial aspect to what is going on around the country today. But that was not all it was, and I have finally taken the trouble to put together the data necessary to prove that.
Voting since Reconstruction has been a battleground. While Andrew Johnson wanted to allow states to disenfranchise black people, the Republicans who controlled Congress wanted to elect Republican governments in the southern states. They could not do that simply by guaranteeing the vote to freed slaves, because only in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina were blacks a majority of the population. They thus arranged for the initial Reconstruction governments to have the right to disenfranchise white voters who had supported the great rebellion and refused to swear a new oath of allegiance. That allowed them to elect Republican state governments almost all over the South and i the border states, but they did not last more than a few years, as the restrictions on white voting were overturned. They lasted the longest, for obvious reasons, in Louisiana and South Carolina, but there, as in Mississippi, the terror of the KKK began to keep black voters away from the polls. The Democratic Party was fully in control of the southern state governments, with very rare exceptions--and also in the border states--by 1884 or so, without major legal restrictions on voting.
The Populist movement in the South, which brought together poor white and black voters for a while, frightened the white South into stronger action. Grandfather clauses and literacy tests disenfranchised nearly all black voters in most of the South beginning in the 1890s. That, however, was not all. Those laws evidently were also applied fairly strictly against many poor and uneducated whites as well. The white turnout, as well as the black one, remained very low in most of the South through the first 2/3 of the twentieth century. I first noticed this studying election results in the World Almanac in the 1960s. Now I have been able to put together the data to prove it--and it will open quite a few eyes.
Using Wikipedia's excellent articles on presidential elections and combining it with census data, I have computed turnout, as a function of the whole population, in every one of the 50 states in 1960. It would be possible to get comparable data merely for the voting age population but that would require far more time than I can allot to this project now, and I don't think it would be significantly more accurate for my purposes today, since the whole country in 1960 was awash in children. The results are astonishing. With the interesting exceptions of Alaska and Hawaii (who were voting for president for the first time, Arizona and New Mexico, and Oklahoma, every state that was not a slave state in 1860 had a turn out of from 42 per cent to 49 per cent of its total population. (New Hampshire led the way with 49 per cent, with Massachusetts close behind.) Doing a quick calculation that may come in handy later, I find that nationwide, 61% of the over-19 population--the best approximation I can get to the voting age of 21--cast ballots in 1960.
The former slave states lived in a different world. 25 percent of Alabama's total population cast votes in 1960; 24 per cent of Arkansas; per cent of Florida's; just 19 per cent of Georgia's; 37 per cent of Louisiana's; 14 per cent of Mississippi's, the lowest figure in the nation; 30 per cent of North Carolina's; 16 per cent of South Carolina's; 29 per cent in Tennessee, 24 per cent in Texas, and just 19% in Virginia. In neither Maryland nor Kentucky did 40 per cent of the population cast votes either.
Now on the one hand, almost none of the black population could vote in states like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama, and large portions of blacks could not vote in other states. Yet disenfranchisement severely affected many white populations as well. Let us recall once again that in most of the country, about 45 per cent of the whole population cast votes. Let's look now at the percentage of the white population that cast votes in the old Confederacy. Florida, remarkably, had what seems to be a higher-than-average turnout among whites, at 55 per cent of their total population--perhaps in part because that population was unusually old. But the total vote as a percentage of the white population was 25 per cent in Alabama, 26 per cent in Georgia, 37 per cent in Louisiana, 24 per cent in Mississippi, a full 40 per cent in North Carolina, just 25 per cent in South Carolina, 29 per cent in Texas, and 25 per cent in Virginia. In other words, while 480,000 out of every million white people in Massachusetts cast votes, less than 260,000 of every million white people in Georgia did (allowing for a significant black vote in Atlanta, even then.)
Sitting in on hearings on the great Kennedy civil rights bill in the summer of 1963, I more than one white southern witness explain that back home, they didn't regard voting as a right, but as a privilege. I don't know exactly how so many whites were kept away from the polls as late as 1960, but the figures show that many thousands of them didn't enjoy that privilege either. Class obviously played a huge role in who voted, as well as race. And it may still. The turnout as a percentage of voting age population in the various states for 2020 also showed important regional variations. The national average for the whole country was exactly 66.7%. The top ten states were Minnesota (80 per cent), Colorado, Maine, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Michigan (73.9 percent.) Every one of them voted for Biden. The bottom ten were Alabama (63.1 per cent), Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia, Hawaii, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. All but two of them voted for Trump, most of them by huge margins.
Even if the new Republican regulations survive, they will not restore the situation of 1960. I often wonder, as I mentioned here many years ago, whether some Republican legislature will introduce a property qualification for voting--something which is in no way forbidden by the original constitution or any subsequent amendment. Perhaps we can do more to preserve voting rights if we recognize that this problem--like so many others we face--has never been simply a matter of race.