Alabama’s Bourbon Democrats had a problem.
During the previous decade, the men who had “redeemed” the state from Republican rule had been challenged, and in some cases defeated, by opponents identified with the Farmers Alliance and the Populist movement. Were it not for the ability of Black Belt planters to manipulate the black vote, and were it not for the legislative control they enjoyed as a result, the challenge would have succeeded.
As long as blacks and poor whites voted, Bourbon control of the state would never be secure.
So the Bourbons set out to make sure those who opposed them would not be able to vote.
How did they accomplish this? By requiring qualifications to vote that opponents could not meet.
And so it came to pass that Alabama Bourbons called for a constitutional convention. Into the new constitution they wrote residency requirements, literacy requirements, poll taxes and property qualifications, as well as stipulations that potential voters had to be engaged in a lawful business and could not have been convicted of one of a host of crimes, many of which (such as vagrancy) were frequently charged against blacks and poor whites.
That done, according to one of the constitution’s supporters, only the “intelligent and virtuous voter” would be allowed to cast a ballot, and everyone knew who those “intelligent and virtuous” voters were — men like the ones who wrote the constitution and who stuffed the ballot boxes to get the document ratified.
Alabama was hardly the only state where those in power limited suffrage by putting in place qualifications to vote that the citizens might vote against them. Prior to 1901, the courts held that so long as these qualifications did not discriminate on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” — as stated in the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — a state was permitted to use them.
Later courts would strike down these requirements. But it has long been a strategy of political parties that once they are in power, they attempt to stay in power by limiting their opponent’s ability to unseat them. They have done this in a variety of ways. Most recently, the strategy has been to require a state-issued identification card with the voter’s picture on it.
The argument has been that this will prevent voter fraud. It looks more like a solution to a problem that’s not really a problem. Unless, of course, the real problem in the eyes of the law’s Republican supporters is that some Alabama voters aren’t “intelligent and virtuous” enough.