Earlier this month, when the Center for American Progress Action Fund think tank released a state-by-state assessment of democracy, which looked at citizens’ access to the polls, legislative representation and political influence, most observers weren’t surprised that the Deep South ended up on the bottom rung. The seven-state region that seceded from the Union and formed the heart of the Confederacy was under federal occupation for about a decade after the Civil War, and in the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow-era laws kept African-Americans from the polls – through lynchings and Klan terrorism if necessary. The South saw more bloodshed when, against armed white resistance, activists tried to register black voters during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. And, from 1965 until last summer, several states in Dixie essentially had to ask permission from the Justice Department before making any substantial changes to its voting laws. Yet one state stood out in the CAP survey: Alabama, the Heart of Dixie and arguably the reddest state in the union, finished dead last out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The grade, however, is an indication of a deeper, more complex problem found in Alabama and other Southern red states like Louisiana and Texas. The region’s bitter legacy of racial segregation – combined with a widening class divide, a history of voter disenfranchisement and no-holds-barred partisan politics – has created an environment where access to the polls is still questionable and the minority party has little power.
“This is one case where Alabama officials are not going to be able to say, ‘Thank God for Mississippi,'” says Richard Cohen, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. Mississippi, a perennial doormat in such national rankings, is 46th in the CAP on the survey.