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Dwight R. Lee

Voting with Ballots versus Voting with Your Feet

Dwight R. Lee*

Millions of black people in the Jim Crow South were prevented from voting. That's the bad news. Fortunately, there's some good news. They were able to vote with their feet and millions of them did. In doing so, they benefited themselves both economically and politically, and also benefitted millions of white people in the North with whom they traded. What happened in the United States in the last century is dramatic evidence that voting with one's feet is much more powerful than voting at the ballot box. That experience has lessons for today's controversy over immigration to America.

First, some brief history. The U.S. Constitution's Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, states that the right of U.S. citizens to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It should be noted that this applied only to males. But by the 1890s, state and local governments primarily, but not exclusively, in the South began re-enacting pre-Civil War laws severely restricting the civil rights and liberties of black people. These laws remained in effect until the mid-1960s, and their ill effects, though diminished, have yet to vanish.

Jim Crow laws included literacy tests that disproportionately hurt black people. First, they were hurt because they had inferior educational opportunities. Second, the tests contained questions that were more difficult than the questions given to white people, if given to whites at all. Even when black people passed the tests, they still confronted discriminatory grading, poll taxes, obstacles to getting through the registration process, white-only primaries for choosing Democratic candidates (the only ones relevant in the South at the time), and threats of violence. As a result, voting among blacks plummeted. In 1896, for example, there were more than 130,000 registered black voters in Louisiana. In 1904, that number was down to 1,342,1 a drop of over 98 percent!

"Voting with their feet assured people of getting what they voted for."

As noted earlier, that was the bad news. But southern black people had another way of voting, a way that millions of them took full advantage of: voting with their feet. Moreover, not only males but also females could, and did, exercise this way of voting. Although not as convenient as casting a ballot at a local polling place, voting with their feet had several advantages over voting at the polls, especially for black people in the Jim Crow South. The most obvious advantage was that, as opposed to ballot voting, voting with their feet assured people of getting what they voted for. The most direct benefits southern blacks realized from voting with their feet were economic, and, thus, they were motivated to become more informed and make wiser decisions than southern whites who voted with ballots. The extent of this voting with their feet between about 1915 and 1970 was so dramatic that it was given a name: the Great Migration. I consider first the benefits to the black migrants and then discuss other benefits from the Great Migration that were distributed more broadly.

Southern blacks who migrated to the Northeast and Midwest in great numbers, and to the West in fewer numbers, were voting for economic opportunity, the civil and political rights that the Constitution promised them, and protection against racially motivated threats to their property and persons. Because their votes decisively determined where they went, they had a strong incentive to acquire information on alternative locations. As bad as it was for blacks in the South, it could be a mistake to assume that a move elsewhere would be worthwhile. The South did not have a monopoly on racial hatred and intolerance, and some moves north would have offered insufficient improvements to justify the financial expense and personal disruption of moving. Despite dismal educational opportunities for southern blacks that left many illiterate, they apparently acquired enough information to allow them to make, on average, good decisions. The most general evidence for this conclusion is that the Great Migration was nearly continuous, and reasonably steady, for approximately 55 years. If they weren't making good decisions in moving, presumably that fact would have been learned by other blacks in the South who, presumably, would not have followed them north.

Some historians divide the Great Migration into the first migration (1915-1930) and the second (1940-1970), with a lull in migration during the Great Depression. The first migration witnessed about 1.6 million people moving mostly from the rural South to northern industrial cities. In the second migration, over 5 million moved north, and a larger percentage headed West—primarily to California—than in the first migration. For more detail on how the Great Migration redistributed blacks as a percentage of the population, see Figure 1.

Figure 1. African Americans as a Percentage of Population

While the persistence of the black migration out of the South is compelling evidence that blacks who migrated improved their economic opportunities, more direct evidence exists. Here's how UCLA economist Leah P. Boustan put it:

[B]etween 1915 and 1970,... [f]or black migrants, the north held the promise both of better-paying job opportunities and of social and political equality. During this period, and particularly between 1940 and 1970 when the majority of black migration occurred, the earnings of black men grew faster than those of white men nationwide. In 1940, black men earned a mean of 40 cents to the dollar earned by white men; by 1970, the black-to-white ratio had increased to 70 cents to the dollar2 (2015, p. 24).

Blacks still faced problems because of their race, but they did improve their economic conditions by migrating. And, in addition to economic benefits, they also gained, by their choice of where to live, an important non-economic benefit: the ability to claim their dignity, self-respect, and worth as human beings.

In an April 1865 speech, Frederick Douglass said why black people so badly wanted the vote:

We want it because it is our right, first of all. No class of men can, without insulting their own nature, be content with any deprivation of their rights.... Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely by the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation. By depriving us of suffrage, you affirm our incapacity to form an intelligent judgment respecting public men and public measures; you declare before the world that we are unfit to exercise the elective franchise, and by this means lead us to undervalue ourselves, to put a low estimate upon ourselves, and to feel that we have no possibilities like other men.3

This is a powerful statement of what southern blacks were denied by the obstacles that prevented so many from exercising their right to vote at the polls. By voting with their feet, blacks rejected the contempt with which they were treated and, by doing so, achieved much of what Douglass said they lost by being denied the vote. When voting with their feet, they rejected whites' depiction of them and replaced it with their own: through their own initiative, they demonstrated their capacity to seek out information, form intelligent judgments and take control of their lives. And, of course, by moving out of the South, these black people finally got to vote at the ballot box.

In addition, when one black person refused to accept degrading treatment by voting with his or her feet for a better life, it was a very public expression that surely inspired others experiencing the same treatment to follow suit. One can think of the Great Migration as an example of a voting cascade in favor of freedom and respect. And it did more than just improve the lives of those who voted with their feet. By reducing the labor supply in the South, the Great Migration also increased the opportunities and wages of the blacks who didn't migrate. According to Boustan: "Overall, the gains for black workers attributable to migration from the South were about 2.5 times larger than [Author's note: Boustan's numbers acutally show that the gains were 2.5 times as large as, not 2.5 times larger than] the losses due to competition in the North. Black earnings nationally may have been further raised by higher wages for black workers remaining in the South, as migrant departures reduced competition in the southern labor market"4 (2015, p. 26). Furthermore, by moving out of the South, blacks increased national income by shifting labor from less productive employment to more productive employment.

Indeed, white voters in the South voted consistently throughout the Jim Crow era to make the South and themselves economically worse off. They voted for proposals and candidates that prevented blacks from receiving the education to increase their skills and limited their opportunities to make the best use of the skills they had. Whites valued their own freedoms, but apparently failed to consider the value they could have realized from the freedom of blacks. Hayek wrote: "The benefits I derive from freedom are thus largely the result of the uses of freedom by others, and mostly of those uses of freedom that I could never avail myself of. It is therefore not necessarily freedom that I can exercise myself that is most important to me."5 (1960; p. 32). While Hayek did not have the South in mind when he wrote this, his point applies. Southern whites, and the South in general, would have been wealthier during the Jim Crow period if blacks had been able to pursue their aspirations as free men and women in market exchanges with each other and with whites.

Obviously, southern voters could not have read Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty until late in the Jim Crow era. But it would have made little difference if they had. When casting their ballots, they were far more concerned with their emotional satisfaction than with their economic improvement.6 Most white voters had a strong emotional attachment to what they believed to be the prevailing white view of blacks—that blacks were incapable of voting wisely and that morality required "keeping them in their place" for their own good, even if it required violence to do so. It is not clear that this would have been the prevailing private view in the South, except for the fact that most whites thought it was. Pinker states:

People cannot only overcome their revulsion to hands-on violence but acquire a taste for it;... And people can avow [including vote for] a belief they don't hold because they think everyone else avows it; such beliefs can sweep through a closed society and bring it under the spell of a collective delusion7 (2011, p. 570).


For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episode "Bryan Caplan on the Myth of the Rational Voter", June 25, 2007, and "Discrimination," by Linda Gorman in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

It is disturbing that so many southern whites convinced themselves that keeping blacks "in their place" was the moral thing to do and used government to enforce that "morality," often violently.

In the case of the Jim Crow South, the whites who held racist beliefs not only received no tangible benefits from their harmful beliefs and votes, but also harmed themselves as well as blacks. When millions of southern blacks voted with their feet to escape that harm, they made the country wealthier. Also, because they no longer competed as directly with white workers in the South, many of these white workers, many of whom were probably racist, benefited from the decreased competition.

This is relevant to the current immigration debate. Many Americans fear that if the government allows more immigrants into the United States, many will vote for more government intervention of the sort that exists in the places they left. But I believe that the vast majority of immigrants come here not so they can vote, but so they can make money in what is still a land of opportunity. In that sense, they are like southern blacks during the Great Migration. Getting the vote is nice, but having economic opportunity is even more important. That suggests a possible solution that might satisfy those who oppose more immigration because of their fear of how those immigrants will vote: let them in, but increase the time period before they can become citizens to 10 or 20 years. Then watch as millions of productive migrants come here and make us better off.


See "White Only: Jim Crow in America". Smithsonian Museum.


Boustan, Leah P. "The Great Black Migration: Opportunity and competition in northern labor markets". Focus, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2015: 24-27.


Douglass, Frederick. "What the Black Man Wants". Excerpt of Speech Given at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, April, 1865.


Boustan, Leah P. "Great Black Migration."


Hayek, Friedrich A. (1960). The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


See Lee, Dwight R. (2013). "Do the Poor Vote their Self-Interest?" Library of Economics and Liberty, August 5, 2013.


Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.

*Dwight R. Lee is a Senior Fellow with the O'Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom at Southern Methodist University.

For more articles by Dwight R. Lee, see the Archive.

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