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Voting Rights: Just One Way White Supremacy Was Enshrined in the US Constitution

Illustration by DonkeyHotey.
Illustration by DonkeyHotey.

By Mark Karlin
The GOP campaign to deny many people of color the right to vote - which has intensified in recent years - is particularly ironic considering a certain demand of slave-holding states when the US Constitution was drafted. Southern states were implacable in requiring that a slave be counted as a person in the federal census. This demand was made despite the prima facie assumption of slavery proponents that Black people were not persons and thus not able to vote.
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Why would those who regarded Black people as subhuman property be adamant about "classifying" them as people in the Constitution? An article on the Louisiana University at Lafayette website explains:
Of the 55 [Constitutional] Convention delegates, about 25 (almost half!) owned slaves. The delegates from Southern (slave) states wanted to counts slaves as part of their population. This would give the Southern states additional representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives. Delegates from the Northern (Free) states strongly opposed this, arguing that if slaves had no rights to vote (or any other rights of citizenship) then the South should not be given additional representatives in the House. Also, the North feared that counting slaves as part of the South's population would allow the South to have enough representatives in the House to out-vote the North on issues regarding slavery. The South likewise feared that not counting slaves as part of their population would give the South too few representatives in the House, thus allowing the North to out-vote the South on issues regarding slavery. The compromise they reached would arbitrarily count each slave as 3/5 of a person.
Thus, written into the original US Constitution is language that allowed white slave owners to achieve increased political power by - as a result of "compromise" - designating a slave as a 3/5 of a person, for the purposes of enhanced Southern white male political representation in Congress. The relevant article in the Constitution (which obviously was modified in subsequent amendments) reads:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
The African American Registry website points out the perverse incentive that this "compromise" offered to slave-holding states:
Rather than halting or slowing the importation of slaves in the South, slavery had been given a new life - a political life. Even when the law stopped the importing of new slaves in 1808, the South continued to increase its overall political status and electoral votes by adding and breeding slaves illegally. The Three-fifths Compromise would not be challenged again until the Dred Scott case in 1856.
Emancipation first resulted in the short-lived Reconstruction Era. It was followed by the emergence of a segregated South that employed terrorist tactics - including lynchings, church bombings, killings, police shootings, beatings and jailing - to suppress Black people.

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