In 1889 the Tennessee General Assembly passed four acts of self-described electoral reform that resulted in the disfranchisement of a significant portion of African American voters as well as many poor white voters. The timing of the legislation resulted from a unique opportunity seized by the Democratic Party to bring an end to what one historian described as the most “consistently competitive political system in the South.” (1)
In the political campaign of 1888, the Democrats waged a battle unparalleled in corruption and violence to gain quorum control over both houses of the legislature. With Republicans unable to stall or defeat antiparty measures, the disfranchising acts sailed through the 1889 general assembly, and Governor Robert L. Taylor signed them into law. Hailed by newspaper editors as the end of black voting, the laws worked as expected, and African American voting declined precipitously in rural and small town Tennessee. Many urban blacks continued to vote until so-called progressive reforms eliminated their political power in the early twentieth century.
The disfranchising acts included the Myers Law, the Lea Law, the Dortch Law, and the imposition of a poll tax. The Myers Law, named for Representative Thomas R. Myers of Bedford County, required voters in districts or towns that had cast more than five hundred votes in 1888 to register at least twenty days before every election. The Dortch Law, named for Representative Josiah H. Dortch, provided for the implementation of a secret ballot. Initially the Dortch Law, which applied to seventy-eight civil districts in thirty-seven counties, permitted voters to obtain assistance in marking their ballots if they had voted in 1857. It disfranchised black illiterate voters, while initially protecting older white illiterates. The Lea Law, named for Benjamin J. Lea, provided for separate ballot boxes for state and federal elections. It was intended to circumvent expected congressional legislation (the Lodge Election Bill) to supervise federal elections. When Congress failed to pass the Lodge Bill, the Tennessee State Legislature rescinded the Lea Act in 1893. The final act of disfranchisement came with the implementation of the poll tax. The Tennessee State Constitution of 1870 provided for a poll tax at the discretion of the general assembly, with revenues to be used for the common school fund. At the time, critics such as former president Andrew Johnson had recognized the potential harm inherent in the poll tax and vehemently protested it as a method to disfranchise the poor. Nevertheless, the provision remained in the constitution, and the 1889 legislature implemented the tax. Payment was required to vote, but no county officer came to collect the tax. Taxpayers could choose not to pay and suffered no penalty except giving up the right to vote in that year's election. Unlike some states, Tennessee's poll tax was not cumulative; payment of a single year's tax permitted one to vote in that year.
Support for the new laws came from Democrats and members of the Farmers' Alliance. Later, as Alliancemen moved into the People's Party, they recognized the devastating effect the laws also had on poor whites and vowed to overturn them if elected. Yet successive legislatures expanded the reach of the disfranchising laws until they covered the state. In 1949 political scientist V. O. Key Jr. argued that the size of the poll tax did not inhibit voting as much as the inconvenience of paying it. County officers regulated the vote by providing opportunities to pay the tax (as they did in Knoxville), or conversely by making payment as difficult as possible. Such manipulation of the tax, and therefore the vote, created an opportunity for the rise of urban bosses and political machines. Urban politicians bought large blocks of poll tax receipts and distributed them to blacks and whites, who then voted as instructed.
The poll tax vexed would-be reformers and stifled change. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Tennessee Press Association led the fight to repeal the poll tax. In 1941 the Shelby County delegation, under the influence of Edward H. Crump, successfully fought back a legislative attempt to repeal the poll tax. Two years later the legislators rescinded the tax, only to have their action declared unconstitutional by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Provisions for the poll tax were finally removed by the 1953 constitutional convention.
Dewey W. Grantham, “Tennessee and Twentieth-Century American Politics,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 53 (1996): 210-12; Jennings Perry, Democracy Begins at Home (1944)