The Devaluation of the Vote: Legislative Apportionment and Inequality in South Carolina, 1890-1962

By Simon, Bryant | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Devaluation of the Vote: Legislative Apportionment and Inequality in South Carolina, 1890-1962


Simon, Bryant, South Carolina Historical Magazine


If power is not immmediately derived from the people in proportion to their numbers, we may make a paper confedercy, but that will be all.

-James Madison1

"THE AMERICAN CONCEPTION OF POLITICAL EQUALITY," United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas asserted in 1963, "can mean only one thing-one person, one vote." The logical extension of the principle of one person, one vote, he elaborated, is the idea of one vote, one value of representation. In other words, citizenship must entail not only the right to vote but the right to have each and every vote counted as a full vote. A system of representation that does not do this devalues the vote; in effect, it puts a check on suffrage and distorts democracy.2

The fact that for many years each and every resident of South Carolina did not receive equal representation is by no means surprising. Citizenship and thus representation in the state was for centuries determined by race and sex. Women did not vote until after World War I. All but a few African Americans, except for a promising, but stormy, democratic moment during Reconstruction, were denied the right to vote until the middle of the 1960s. Far less familiar, however, is how South Carolina's political structure devalued the votes of the majority of the state's white citizens, all the while inflating the value of a significant minority.

South Carolina's system of political inequality was established by the state's 1890 constitution. Pushing aside the qualms of a skeptical electorate, lawmakers approved a new constitution, written under the guidance of the quasi-Populist "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, that for the most part disenfranchised the state's black majority.3 At the same time, they reestablished the antebellum principle of universal white male suffrage. All white men over the age of twenty-one could vote as long as they had not been convicted of bigamy, adultery, or wife-beating-offenses associated in the minds of many whites exclusively with African Americans. Voters also had to pay a poll tax, but this levy applied only to the rather meaningless general election, not to the all-important Democractic Party primary. Until January 1, 1898, anyone who met these qualifications and could read or write any section of the Constitution, or could understand the Constitution when it was read to him, would be installed as a lifelong voter. After this date, an applicant had to have paid all taxes on property assessed at more than $300 or had to be able to read, write, or understand any section of the Constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. Following the convention, Tillman acknowedged in a speech the obvious subterfuge of the understanding clause:

Some have said there is fraud in this understanding clause. Some poisons in small doses are very salutary and valuable medicines.... The [registration] officer is responsible to his conscience and his God; he is responsible to no one else.

There is no principle of fraud or illegality in it. It is just simply showing partiality perhaps (laughter) or discriminating. Ah, you grin.4

While the constitution and the understanding clause promoted nearly universal white male suffrage and insured a white monopoly on state power, it did not, as Tillman had promised, usher in an era of white democracy. On the contrary, it failed to guarantee that all white citizens of South Carolina would be represented equally, that one white man's vote was as valuable as another's. First, the constitution provided the popularly elected governor with minimal authority. Except for the veto, the state's chief executive could do little more than commute prison sentences and put a few of his supporters on the constabulary.5 Control over the budget, taxation, appropriations, and most appointments lay in the hands of the bicameral state legislature or General Assembly. Following another antebellum tradition, the new constitution also implemented a federal-style system of legislative apportionment. …

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