The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” — U.S. Constitution, 15th Amendment, ratified Feb. 3, 1870
Albert Turner was a young college graduate, with a bachelor’s of science degree from Alabama A&M, when he returned home to the central Alabama city of Marion in 1962 with the notion that he would register to vote. At the Perry County courthouse, Turner encountered a test he could not pass.
“They had tests asking how many words in the Constitution, what side the moon was on, any kind of silliness,” Turner, who eventually got involved in voter registration efforts in Selma, Alabama, later told journalist Howell Raines for an oral history about the civil rights movement, “My Soul is Rested.”
“I’m serious, it was all kinds of jive,” Turner said. “They got so bad once after we started trying to learn how to pass the tests … they decided then they’d make up a book of tests with about 300 or 400 tests in it. You’d walk up to the desk, and they’d tell you to open the book, and whatever page you opened the book on, that would be your test. And this was fixed where you never would be able to pass the test. You couldn’t learn all the tests in the book.”
Lawrence Guyot, an activist in Mississippi with a degree in biology and chemistry, described for Raines the “classic” question presented to would-be voters: “Read and interpret to the satisfaction of the registrar this section of the Constitution.” The voter registrar would then pick from among 282 sections of the Mississippi state Constitution.
“Needless to say, we had some Phi Beta Kappas, some Ph.D.’s, and some college and high school principals failing the literacy test,” Guyot said.
Once activist Fannie Lou Hamer finally passed a literacy test in Mississippi — you could try again every 30 days — she told Raines she was treated like a criminal. Cars passed her house slowly in the night, their drivers and passengers visibly armed.
Such were the barriers erected for Black people who wanted to vote in the Deep South not three generations ago. Other counties imposed taxes on hopeful voters that a typical sharecropper could never afford. For whites who registered to vote, the requirements were nowhere near as onerous. This was until, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act invalidated literacy tests in 26 states.
Safe to say these kind of challenges would be unfathomable to today’s recent college graduates who, like Turner, try to sign up to vote. Today in Alabama a young adult can register on a state website. In 17 other states, including Massachusetts, people can automatically register when they get a driver’s license.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states including New Hampshire allow would-be voters to register on Election Day, at the polls. One state, North Carolina, allows same-day registration during early voting but not on Election Day itself, according to the conference.
The distance between the world as it used to be, when Jim Crow blocked the paths of educated citizens trying to fulfill their right to vote, and the world as it exists today, was covered by decades of bloodshed and conflict. Voting is not something — even in this land of the free — to be taken for granted.
As of yesterday, nearly 90 million ballots were already cast ahead of Tuesday’s election, either in person or by mail, according to a tracker maintained by Michael P. McDonald, political science professor at the University of Florida. More than 2.2 million people had already voted in Massachusetts, and more than 181,000 in New Hampshire.
If you aren’t counted in that number, then on Tuesday, in the name of those who sacrificed so that every citizen could vote, and for countless others who tried only to be turned away, visit your polling place and mark your ballot.