Barriers to Voter Registration Remain Southwide

By Raymond Brown

Vol. 4, No. 1, 1981, pp. 34-35

Since the end of the white primary system in the South, the most basic indication of the fulfillment of the right to register and vote has been the analysis of registration by race. Once the Supreme Court had dismantled the legal mechanisms by which blacks were excluded from the electoral process, white resistance intensified at the courthouses where blacks could register to vote. As the venerable V.0. Key, Jr., said in his panoramic work Southern Politics, each local registration officer became a law unto himself in determining the citizens' right to vote, and the machinery of registration in the hands of resisting white officials became the most evasive and effective method of denying the franchise.

Of course, the 1965 Voting Rights Act recognized this basic problem and provided for the appointment of federal registrars and a preclearance of voting changes in order to overcome the local, rooted efforts of resistance. After 15 years, the mechanics of the Voting Rights Act have improved the status of black's right to vote, and the percentages of registered blacks have increased dramatically since 1965. For example, since 1962 the number of black registered voters has almost tripled in the 11 Southern states.

It would be a tragic mistake, however, to assume that the right to register and vote has been accomplished in most areas of the South. Resistance continues to be widespread. Among 182 counties and parishes with more than 20 percent black population in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana, only four counties have a rate of registered blacks among the black population greater than the white rate of registration.

In Georgia differences were extraordinary in a large number of counties. In Wilkins County, Georgia, where 45.9 percent of the population is black, the white rate of registration is 85.7 percent and the black rate of registration is 54.4 percent. In Miller County, Georgia where there is a 28 percent black population, the difference between the black and white rate of registration is 32.8 percentage points.

With the rarest exception, the rate of white registration continues to exceed, by a substantial margin, the rate of black registration throughout the Deep South. In the four states surveyed, the average rate of black registration is approximately 14 percentage points below the average rate of white registration. The differences in the rate of registration between blacks and whites in Georgia is 16.6 percent; In North Carolina it is 16.5 percent; in South Carolina it is 16.7 percent; and in Louisiana it is almost 20 percent.

Some state officials in the South argue that there are now many counties "Where voter participation problems are far fewer than in the past and ..., demographically, do not justify the use of preclearance procedures." As an example, these officials have usually pointed to those Southern counties without significant black populations as the areas within the South where black's problems with political participation no longer exist.

On the most basic measurement of political participation, the Council's analysis of selected jurisdictions without large black populations in these four Southern states belies the contention that the right to register and vote has become the equal right of both black and white citizens. In a representative group of 36 counties in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, where the black population was below 20 percent of the jurisdiction, the Council analyzed registration data. The black population of these counties ranged from 2 percent in Cherokee County, North Carolina, to 19 percent in Cherokee County, South Carolina. By geography and population they constitute a representative sample of the Southern counties with little black population.

In these 36 counties, no jurisdiction has a rate of black registration equal the rate of white registration. In most of these counties the difference between the higher white rate and the lower black rate is comparable to the differences among the heavily populated counties. In Allegheny County, North Carolina, for example, where less than 2 percent of the population is black, the rate of registration among the white population exceeds the rate of registration among blacks by a difference of 20.2 percentage points—a difference that exceeds the average in North Carolina among the heavily black populated counties.

In Louisiana, La Salle parish has only a 9 percent black population, but the rate of registration among whites exceeds the rate of registration among blacks by more than 10 percentage points. Gwinnett County, Georgia also shows a particularly egregious example of depressed black registration. In this suburban Atlanta county where only 2 percent of the population is black, the rate of registration among that 2 percent is almost 18 percentage points below the rate of registration among the 98 percent white population. And in Henry County, the 17 percent black population has a registration rate that is more than 34 percentage points below the white rate.

Perhaps most remarkably, in almost half of these counties with less than 20 percent black population (15 of 36) the difference between the white and black rate of registration is greater than the average difference in the substantially black populated counties of the applicable state. In other words, by traditional indicators, the problems of registration in counties with smaller black populations in the Deep South continue to be as great as the problems of registrations in largely black populated counties.

Registration data offers us some important observations:

1. The differences between the rate of registration among blacks and whites continues to be substantial and widespread;

2. The differences between rates of black and white registration, and probably the problems which accompany such substantial differences, exist in those areas of the South where the black population is not substantial as much as it does where the black population is 20 percent or more;

3. The improvement in registration has continued over the past 23 years although the rate of improvement has slackened since 1966.

The analysis clearly indicates that none of the white elected officials who are in positions to influence state election procedures, in terms of ensuring that they are equitable, has "confessed religion and been baptized. " Rather the data show that the "mourners'" bench is still filled with sinners and the revival must continue."

Raymond Brown testified before Congress on June 16, 1981.

My name is Raymond Brown, I am director of a special project of the Southern Regional Council that is examining voting rights in the South.