'A Chicken-Stealer Shall Lose His Vote': Disfranchisement for Larceny in the South, 1874-1890
Journal of Southern History, Vol. 75, No. 4, pp. 931-962, November 2009
33 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2009 Last revised: 7 Jan 2010
Date Written: November 18, 2009
Between 1874 and 1882 all southern states (except Texas) amended their constitutions and revised their laws to disfranchise for petty theft. These revisions were part of a larger effort to disfranchise African American voters and to restore the Democratic party to political dominance in the region. This expansion of disfranchisement took the form of statutory revision, constitutional amendment, and judicial action. Some southern states changed their laws to upgrade misdemeanor property crimes to felonies. Felonies were already disfranchising offenses in most of these states. Several states amended or revised their constitutions to expand disfranchisement to include larceny and/or petit larceny. Finally, southern courts interpreted existing laws to include misdemeanors as disfranchising crimes. While Democrats celebrated the success of these laws in disfranchising African Americans, Republicans criticized their racial and partisan impact. Although Democrats used a variety of techniques to ensure their electoral dominance, these new laws were one tool used by Democrats to deny the vote to Republicans in some of the most tightly-contested elections of this period. This article concludes with a discussion of the symbolic role that chicken theft played in discussions of petty theft. Experiences from the 1870s and 1880s demonstrate that partisan advantage can be obtained from laws disfranchising for crime, particularly when election officials with a partisan agenda exploit racially-skewed conviction and incarceration rates.
Keywords: disfranchisement, disenfranchisement, felony disfranchisement, Reconstruction
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