Games Registrars Play
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 7, No. 2, 1985, pp. 1-2
Two decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, no one really knows how many black citizens are registered to vote in the South today. While no better basic standard exists by which to measure an open democracy, the level of voter registration is unknown in the region because many local white officials, especially in rural areas, continue to keep meaningless information and thereby promote unfair political practices.
In the 1940s, the Southern Regional Council began estimating the levels of black registration in the South because most Southern officials refused to keep or distribute information about the race of registered voters. Without official numbers verifying the insignificant size of registered black voters, white politicians in those days maintained that they were color blind while using all-white primaries, literacy tests, and poll taxes to keep blacks off the voting rolls and out of the ballot box.
Today the practices of non-information continue in the South. In Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia–five of the eleven Southern states–officials in charge of voter registration cannot tell how many blacks are registered to vote. In these states the best source of information is sample surveys of the US Census Bureau carried out only at the state level every four years.
Records of registration kept by white registrars in predominantly black populated counties in the rural South are unbelievably bad. In Mississippi in 1980-the latest date for a count of the voting age population of counties- rural, predominantly black Coahoma County had 23,246 people of voting age (eighteen years or older). Yet, according to the Mississippi Secretary of State who keeps registration data, 24,273 people were registered to vote there. In Yazoo County, Mississippi there were less than eighteen-thousand citizens of voting age population in 1980 while more than
18,500 people were registered to vote.
In fact, in the Second Congressional District of Mississippi, the state’s only district with a majority black population, one-half of its twenty counties have more registered voters on the rolls than people of voting age.
Mississippi is not the exception. In Wilcox County, Alabama, eighty-five percent of the total population was registered to vote in 1980, according to the reports of the county’s board of registrars; however, only sixty-two percent of the county was old enough to vote that year. In predominantly black Lowndes County, where whites also control the registration board, eighty-two percent of the total population of the county was registered to vote in 1980, although only sixty percent of the population was of voting age.
In other Southern counties where registration rolls are better kept, some local officials know more than they are telling. In Alabama, the Secretary of State’s office says that most counties do not keep voter registration data by race. Yet, in Sumter County, local white registrars–appointed by the governor of Alabama–have the information. They just don’t distribute it. Less than two years ago, an SRC representative discovered on his third visit to that registrar’s office that registration data was being kept for each precinct, by race on computer. White officials simply did not wish to distribute the information and had denied its existence until it was inadvertently seen.
These inaccuracies and duplicities retard local efforts to increase real voter registration and turn-out; they hide local officials’ caprice and hostility to black voters; and, too often, they permit former residents of a county and current residents of the local cemetery to vote.
Proposals for reform offered by registration boards and their political allies would often have the same effect as the problems they are supposed to correct. In southwest Alabama, for example, recent proposals of reform would have’ wiped away all names from the voting rolls and required all citizens to re-register to vote within a few months. Opportunities for registration in most of these counties are restricted to less than ten days a month and usually only from nine to five (and closed at lunch time). Most registration can only occur at the local courthouse.
While farmers doing seasonal work might once have been able to re-register under these conditions, the fact is that most blacks in these rural areas now work regular shifts and must get the permission of white employers and miss a day’s work to register. And for a large part of the elderly blacks who have no transportation, this type of reregistration would mean no registration.
In effect, these reforms would eliminate in two months a level of black registration that has required twenty years to build. Thus, blacks in these counties have been offered a political Hobson’s choice: useless registration data or crippled black registration. Most blacks have chosen to block the devastating reforms and live without hard, accurate registration data which could often help them target registration drives.
Thirty-five years ago, V. O. Key stated in his authoritative study, Southern Politics, that “every local registration officer is a law unto himself ….” In different circumstances today, the same conclusion applies to much of the South’s Black Belt. Southern local and state governments must begin to collect accurate information on registration by race and to implement procedures that help–not hinder–people to register. Until we know how many blacks and whites are registered to vote in the South’s precincts, we should assume that officials continue to hide mischievous practices which prompted the passage of the Voting Rights Act twenty years ago.
Steve Suitts is executive director of the Southern Regional Council.