As the presidential race heats up and the American public becomes consumed with the drama that will inevitably engulf the campaign, we should not forget that democracies are intended to be based on voter enfranchisement, and that in many ways America is still lacking in this regard.
There are many techniques that America could employ to increase voter turnout, but one of our most pressing obstacles is the states that have consistently worked toward disenfranchising large swaths of their electorate. In this election cycle, Alabama may be the most egregious offender. You probably think you know all the reasons for this, but here’s one reason I bet you don’t know: It’s all in the state’s constitution.
To put it mildly, Alabama’s constitution is an absurd document. It is the longest still-operative constitution in the world at more than 310,000 words long. It is 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution and 12 times longer than the average state constitution. Alabama’s constitution is insanely long because it gives the state legislature the power to administer over most counties directly, and as a result about 90 percent of the constitution consists of nearly 900 amendments. Some of the amendments cover mundane issues such as salary increases for county officials or the regulation of bingo games in Macon and Greene counties. The U.S. Constitution, in comparison, has only 27 amendments.
Alabama’s constitution places the majority the state’s political power in the hands of a small coterie of officials, leaving counties and municipalities forced to essentially ask permission from the legislature regarding almost any form of self-governing. Alabamans for a long time have railed against the inefficiencies and ridiculousness of this constitution. But the racial undertones and the fact that it disproportionately harms and disenfranchises persons of color should not be overlooked. In fact, it should be the focal point when attempting to understand the constitution that governs Alabama.
The document was ratified in 1901 following a wave of racial terror that engulfed the South after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Essentially, the constitutions of most Southern states follow a similar pattern. Prior to 1861 they all had their own various constitutions, but at the start of the Civil War they created new constitutions pledging their allegiance to the Confederacy. Following the defeat of the Confederacy these constitutions were no longer valid, and starting in 1868 each state had a new constitution overseen by the federal government that outlawed slavery and ensured black Americans were able to vote, to seek and hold elected offices, and to participate in their governments at the local, state, and national level.
To put it mildly, white Southerners did not embrace this societal change, and rather quickly a wave of terror engulfed the South directed toward freed blacks and Northern carpetbaggers—many of whom were also black—who had moved to the region with the intention of ensuring that the new constitutions and federal regulations were followed. The first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was formed during this period.
However, the terror inflicted upon blacks during this era was not merely physical and mental, but also political. In addition to the Klan and other terrorist groups such as the White League and the Red Shirts, a political movement called the Redeemers began to steadily grow in popularity in the South. The Redeemers were a white political coalition consisting of primarily conservative and pro-business politicians and leaders. Their political ideology focused on seeking “redemption” by ousting or oppressing the coalition of freedmen—freed persons of color, carpetbaggers, and scalawags (Southern whites who supported Reconstruction). The Redeemers wanted to return their America to an era that favored white life and oppressed all others.
The biggest coup of this era for the Redeemers was the controversial Compromise of 1877 that removed federal troops from South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, decided the 1876 U.S. presidential election, and ended the era of Reconstruction. In the ensuing years, Southern states created constitutions that reversed the progress and enfranchisement of Reconstruction, but without explicitly violating the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution.
Jim Crow laws and segregation became legally mandated during this time, but due to the “separate but equal” doctrine, these policies were not viewed as racially unjust. Additionally, since race could no longer serve as a barrier to vote, wealth, education and more became the new determinants, and poll taxes were instituted in states across the South. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia all created poll taxes in their new constitutions that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. Poor whites had become the collateral damage in the quest to continue the oppression of black Americans in the South.
However, as time passed most of these states created new constitutions or completely rewrote existing ones so that they would not be trapped and forced to govern based upon the abhorrent and immortal standards of the past. Georgia, for example, ratified its current constitution in 1983.
Yet Alabama remains as one of the states whose constitution (PDF) functions as a continuation of the Redeemers ideology: an ideology that resulted in widespread political corruption as whites worked to sustain white supremacy and remain the governing force in Alabama by any means necessary. During the 1890s, whites in Alabama committed 177 lynchings—more than any other state—and by the end of the decade, Alabama had created a new constitution that placed the state under the control of those who committed and/or endorsed the terror.
During the first election held after the constitution’s 1901 enactment, voter turnout declined by 38 percent as a result of poll taxes, literacy requirements, and other legal voting impediments. In 1900 there were roughly 181,000 registered black voters and by 1903 there were fewer than 5,000. Black voter turnout dropped by a whopping 96 percent, and white turnout also decreased by 19 percent.
In recent years, when Alabama has instituted voter ID laws that disproportionately harm communities of color and have systematically closed DMVs in predominantly black counties, thus preventing African Americans from obtaining voter IDs, no one should be surprised. Alabama has always been a state that has found creative legal was to oppress and disenfranchise black Americans while ensuring that a segment of white elites dominate society.
Alabama’s constitution may not be legally racist or oppressive, but that most certainly is its intent. Preventing Alabamans from voting is its main bedrock principle. And while many Alabamans view their constitution as a shame that blights their society, the oppressive principles and ideology that brought it into existence have unfortunately returned to our national political discourse. Voting restrictions have sprung up across the nation, and government-sponsored racial and religious divisions are again commonplace in our political discourse.
Attempts to forcefully return America to a past that encourages racial division and oppression and places political power within the wealthy elites of society only result in staining the future. Alabama’s constitution and its capacity and consistency of racial oppression and disenfranchising voters is only one example, and sadly there are no signs that it will be repealed anytime soon.