10 Ways the U.S. Has Kept Citizens From Voting

Literacy Tests
This cartoon showing Uncle Sam writing on wall, "Eddikashun qualifukashun. The Black man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with US Wites, signed Mr. Solid South", lampooning the South's literacy tests. Library of Congress

Officials who wanted to keep blacks from voting in post-Reconstruction American South came up with another cleverly cruel trick. They imposed so-called literacy tests, which ostensibly were intended to make sure that only voters who could read and write — and thus were adequately informed — could cast ballots. Since former slaves seldom had been allowed by their owners to learn to read, the literacy tests effectively disenfranchised many of them.

The first such test was created in 1882 in South Carolina, where voters were required to fill out a ballot for each office, such as governor or senator, and then put the ballot in the correct box. The boxes were continuously shuffled, to prevent those who had learned to read from helping those hadn't yet acquired the skill [source: University of Michigan].

As more blacks became literate, though, officials came up with even more bizarre tests, such as brain-twisters designed to confuse the prospective voter. Louisiana, for example, had this question: "Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write" [source: Onion]. Some Southern states continued to use such tests up until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act made them illegal [source: Ourdocuments.gov].