IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The South's Jim Crow barriers to voting rights are going national

It's an encore nobody wanted — except for the GOP.
Photo collage of an image of demonstrators holding up signs, one reads 'We Demand Voting Rights Now!' and a torn image of a hand putting a vote into the ballot box.
Millions more people could lose their voting rights than those in the peak Jim Crow years if the GOP has its way.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Jim Crow was never real. He was a work of fiction, a character cobbled together from various Black traits as seen through a white man's gaze. And though his name is forever linked with the racist anti-Black laws of the late 19th and early 20th century American South, Jim Crow was never confined to below the Mason-Dixon Line.

No, when white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a native New Yorker, made his fortune, it was through exposing white audiences nationwide to his combination of Irish music and steps with Blacks' music and a pastiche of their dialect. It feels horrifyingly fitting that almost 200 years later, Jim Crow is on tour once again — and he's playing engagements in almost every state.

Jim Crow laws affected every aspect of Southern Black life from the post-Reconstruction period until the mid-1960s, enshrining a segregated racial caste with Blacks effectively excluded from public life. That weight was enforced especially brutally at the ballot box, where white lawmakers found any number of tricks to keep Blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote when violence had failed to scare them away. Those indirect measures ranged from poll taxes to keep poor Blacks — and many poor whites — from voting to literacy tests to grandfather clauses preventing citizens from voting if a grandfather had been ineligible.

These laws worked — in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina, only 22.5 percent of the voting-age Black population was registered to vote in 1934. All of them, and Virginia, were subject at least in part to the formula passed in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prevented changes in election laws without federal approval.

Now, in the 1960 census, there were about 5.7 million nonwhite citizens in the states and counties covered under the Voting Rights Act. That's 5.7 million Americans who Congress determined needed protection from their states' overly restrictive laws. With new amendments to the law and changes in the formula, Alaska, Arizona and Texas — as well as counties in California, Florida, New York and South Dakota and two townships in Michigan — also had to petition the feds to change their voting laws as of 2013.

But that year, the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula, saying that it was unconstitutional as it existed at the time and that Congress needed to change it. This being Congress, of course no fix has passed since then, thanks to Republican obstruction.

The change after the Supreme Court decision was almost immediate. By the very next year, the Brennan Center for Justice counted, nine of the 15 states previously covered under the formula had passed laws to restrict access to the ballot. These changes, pushed through GOP-dominated legislatures, have only gotten worse under the guise of preventing "voter fraud."

President Donald Trump hammered that narrative on his way to losing the 2020 presidential election. And Republicans around the country have picked up the ball and run with it — they've introduced bills that would restrict voting access in 43 states, according to a Washington Post tally.

In states that President Joe Biden won comfortably, those bills are likely to be dead on arrival; they're basically just signaling from GOP politicians to their base. But "Republicans hold legislative majorities and governorships in 24 states — including battlegrounds like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, even Texas — and 22 of them are pursuing voting restrictions," NBC News' "Meet The Press" team points out.

Remember how I said that 5.7 million nonwhites were affected? That number reaches into the tens of millions if the measures that GOP-controlled states like Georgia are considering are on the books during the 2022 midterms, like bills to limit absentee voting, reduce early voting days and cut hours the polls are open on Election Day.

Some of these states — like Idaho, Iowa and Pennsylvania — were never part of the Voting Rights Act's formula. They were never part of the systemic disenfranchisement of nonwhite voters that the South spent years propping up. And yet here they are, doing their best impression of that system.

When Rice took his minstrel show on the road in the 19th century, he was welcomed with open arms by Northern whites. We're likewise seeing the nationalization of Jim Crow-era anti-voting laws play out. It took Congress' overcoming the South's filibuster in the Senate to put an end to those laws in 1965. America's future is counting on Congress to do the same this year.