Voter Registration: How it Worked in Georgia

Before the Voting Rights Act, In Georgia's rural counties a typical registration process for an Afro-American citizen went something like this:

You had to go down to the courthouse to register on a day when the Registrar was taking voter applications. This meant you had to take off work — with or without your employer's permission — to register. And in counties with large Black populations if a white employer gave such permission, or failed to fire an Afro-American who tried to vote, he might be driven out of business by economic retaliation from the Citizens Council.

If the Registrar was willing to take your application, you filled out the form and then swore a legally-binding oath under penalty of perjury that you had answered the questions truthfully.

You then had to return to the courthouse at some later date chosen by the Registrar. At that appointed date and time you would be examined to see if you met Georgia's voter qualifications. There were two different ways of proving you were "qualified" to vote:

  1. Literacy test. The Registrar would pick out a section from the U.S. or Georgia constitution and ask you to read it aloud and then write it out by hand. He could pick a short easy section or a long complex one. He then determined if you were "literate" enough to vote based solely on his judgment of your performance. In counties with large Black populations few Afro-Americans passed this test so they then had to take the "Character Test" instead.

  2. Character Test. Voter applicants who declared that they could not read or write or who failed the literacy test were given the Character Test. This consisted of 30 questions related to government, politics, and the names of current office holders. You had to correctly answer 20 of the 30 questions in order to pass.

 — © Bruce Hartford


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