The Road to Jim Crow Vote Suppression in Florida: Part I

In the 1888 presidential election, about 74% of eligible Florida voters (i.e., men 21 years and older) cast ballots.[1] Just four years later, that percentage plummeted to 33%.[2]

How did Florida shrink voter turnout by more than half in four years – and keep it that low, and lower, for decades?

Like other Southern states during the late nineteenth century, Florida experimented with legislation until its Democratic Party-controlled legislature finally concocted the perfect blend of laws that essentially eliminated black voters–and a heck of a lot of poor white voters too.

For Southern whites, Reconstruction was a nightmare of Republican state rule dominated by Northern carpetbaggers, Southern scalawags, and the occasional African American politician, all enabled by black voters enfranchised in late 1867.

After enduring eight intolerable years, conservative whites finally “redeemed” their states through a mix of terrorism, electoral intimidation, and the ballot box. They were determined never to lose control again.  How to establish this advantage as permanent and unassailable was the dilemma.

The obvious tactic was to reserve voting for Democratic Party (i.e., conservative whites) loyalists.  But achieving this was not so simple. Reconstruction insurgencies had demonstrated that intimidation and vote fraud were intermittently powerful but ultimately inefficient tools. Excessive violence risked congressional and executive branch interference to defend minority voting rights. Democratic leaders quickly turned to legislation as a tool to suppress black voting. But to be legal, laws restricting voting rights had to sidestep the US Constitution. The XIV and XV Amendments had overturned laws that explicitly barred black voting–such as the “black codes” passed by Southerners immediately after the Civil War and similar restrictions in many Northern states.

Deciding who could vote was especially sensitive in a contested state like Florida. State elections from 1870 through 1876 were extremely close, with the Republican margin of victory in statewide contests declining from 53% of the vote in 1874 to 51% in 1870 and 1872, with 1876 effectively tied.

The small but consistent white Republican vote in Florida – probably 10% to 20% of Republicans during Reconstruction– provided the margin of victory in these elections.  It is also certain that black voting rates in Florida were extremely high and may have approached 90% of eligible voters in certain counties.

Most accounts have attributed the Republican collapse in the mid-1870s to intra-Republican divisions, black disillusion about the state party’s white leadership, the toll of Regulator violence, and the small but increasing number of blacks voting the Democratic ticket.

These were all factors. But the most serious challenge was demographic: Florida’s white population majority grew from 51% in 1870 to 53% in 1880. Republicans’ failure to expand their white electorate beyond the small coalition of Southern unionists and carpetbaggers proved fatal.

In the 1874 election, Democrats regained partial control of the state assembly and two years later won back the statehouse and both chambers. The Republican drafted state constitution that placed sweeping powers of local appointment into the governor’s hands, now delivered the reins over county political machinery to the Democrats. This control was particularly important in the “black belt” counties (Jackson, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson, Marion and Madison, as well as Alachua) which held a large percentage of the state’s black voters.

The road to complete suppression of the black vote was long and gradual.  Certainly Republicans were far from pure. Republican county officials likely took advantage of poor slavery era recordkeeping to allow underage blacks to vote while also averting their eyes to repeat voting.  Democrats were paying attention and later shamelessly insisted that they learned all about vote fraud from the Republicans.[3] But Democrats soon showed that they could both neutralize and far surpass Republican gamesmanship.

On assuming office in January 1877 Democratic Governor Drew called for legislation purportedly intended to combat voting irregularities (i.e., voting fraud by blacks and Republicans) by handing local Democrat officials power to revise voter rolls and the discretion to remove voters who, in the commissioners’ view, did not meet the new law’s requirements.

The proposed law instructed each county’s commissioners (conveniently appointed by the Democratic governor) to review all registrations rolls by November 1877 and to continue to scrutinize such rolls annually. Counties were divided into multiple precincts and voters were required to register and vote only in the precinct where they resided (Laws of Florida, Ch. 3021 (No. 45) 1877). Attorney James McClellan – compiler of Florida’s code of law as well as a former Jackson County Regulator (from Billy: otherwise known as terrorist; Dan adds: and a vicitim too – his daughter was murdered) –chaired the state assembly’s judiciary committee. He remarked that his committee had “spent much time upon this bill, and hope and believe that it will answer the many demands for a salutary law upon this agitating and important subject,” and prevent “abuse of suffrage.”

The re-registration bill may have been patently reasonable (and conforming with contemporary practices), but alarmed Republican leaders recognized that, with Democrats in firm control of county electoral machinery, Republican (i.e,. black) voting would be greatly reduced.

Black Republican legislators strenuously objected:  Jefferson County senator Robert Meacham complained that the bill would “deprive a large number of people of voting” and was “unjust, unfair, unlawful;” Senator Frederick Hill of Gadsden County sarcastically proposed renaming the bill as “to provide for disenfranchising one-third of the legal voters.”

As historian Canter Brown Jr. has observed, the law “took away from rural blacks the protection afforded them by voting together at the county seat and mandated that they exercise their rights in potentially hostile areas away from the eyes of federal officials.” In short, the law gave Democratic county officials the latitude to manipulate voter rolls. (Brown, Florida’s Black Public Officials 1867-1924, p. 39).   With Democrats firmly in control of state government, there was nothing Republicans could do. The bill passed easily and Gov. Drew signed Ch. 3021 into law on Feb. 27, 1877.

It is difficult to measure the impact of the re-registration law with certainty.  State-wide, the re-registration law did not eliminate one-third of voters as feared by Hill, but Republican voting was impacted in important ways.

In four of eight counties which had black majorities in 1870, Republican votes as a percentage of eligible voters stayed close to the same or slightly increased from 1874 to 1878.

In three other black majority counties, Gadsden, Jefferson and Jackson, however, the impact on Republican voting was catastrophic. Measured as a percentage of eligible voters in 1874 and 1878, Republican votes dropped 33% in Gadsden, 46% in Jackson and by an astounding 58% in Jefferson.

Assuming voting rates in 1878 remained similar to 1874 (as they did in black majority counties Duval, Leon, Marion and Alachua), voting decline (i.e., vote suppression) in these three counties translated to a loss of 2,440 Republican votes.  The contested 1st Florida congressional district became a safe Democratic seat. Even with its 60% black majority, Jackson County was permanently lost to Republicans.  Gadsden’s two-thirds black majority was effectively neutralized.[4]  Madison County, more than 60% black, found its 1878 vote disqualified by Democratic officials, eliminating the Republican advantage in the 2nd Congressional district.

Black and Republican voting remained resilient in a handful of counties with strong black majorities in 1878 (e.g., Leon, Marion, Alachua and Duval), but the Republican vote fell statewide from 39% to 35% of all eligible voters (i.e., 11% drop) from 1874. Republican votes may have slightly increased in absolute numbers, but they grew at half the rate of increase enjoyed by the Democrats. [5]

The registration law granted county Democratic officials wide latitude to manipulate voter rolls and proved effective in several contested black belt counties, but was not decisive in ensuring white electoral control of the state. Democrats’ strategy soon evolved from controlling state government to dominating the elected offices in every county, especially those with black majorities. Control of state offices appeared firm, but there remained the outstanding vexation of stubborn black voting majorities in Leon, Jefferson, Marion, Madison, Alachua counties.  Democratic Party leaders were not going to rely on uncertain population trends and leaky registration laws, or the tactic of simply rejecting a black majority county’s votes (i.e., Madison Co. in 1878).  It was time for the Democrats to return to the legislative conference.


[1] All voter participation stats herein are calculated using the total of adult males indicated in the US Federal Census at the Univ. of Virginia Census Browser.  Voter numbers are actually slightly higher because I did not reduce the eligible numbers by non-citizens or others not eligible to vote. In 1880, fewer than 4% of the state’s population was foreign born and, presumably, a number of adult male immigrants had become citizens. I used straight-line averaging to calculate eligible voters in inter-census years.

[2] In 2012 about 63% of eligible Floridians voted in the presidential election (

[3] Edward C. Williamson, Florida Politics in the Gilded Age, 1877-1893, p. 83.

[4] Because population numbers are not available for 1874 or 1878, I calculated straight line estimates of population and racial breakdowns using 1870 and 1880 census numbers. I’m not sophisticated enough to use regression analysis.  I did not use 1876 voting results because those numbers were highly disputed by both parties.

[5] For 1878, I included my projection of Madison County votes based on the voting rates in 1874.  Edward Williamson is very skeptical that large numbers of Jackson and Gadsden county blacks turned to the Democratic Party after 1874.  Williamson points to the 1882 declaration by state’s attorney Daniel L. McKinnon that Jackson County Democratic leaders had boldly and audaciously violated election law. Florida Politics in the Gilded Age, 83-84.

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