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Fifteenth Amendment

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Description: Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbidding discrimination in voting rights on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2 gives enforcement power to Congress.


Significance: The Supreme Court decided many cases involving discrimination in access to voting, especially after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law and the Court's interpretive decisions ended racially discriminatory voting restrictions in the United States.


The original U.S. Constitution tied the right of individuals to vote in federal elections to state election laws. A person who was eligible to vote in elections for the lower house of the state legislature was entitled to vote in federal elections. The result was that eligibility to vote was determined by state, not federal, law. If a national decision on voting rights was to be made, a constitutional amendment such as the Twenty-fourth, which ended poll taxes, was required. In 1868, after the Northern victory in the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment established citizenship and civil rights for the newly freed slaves. On February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was adopted to prevent state governments from denying freed slaves the right to vote. Its language however, is much broader, because it prohibits denial of the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Section 2 of the amendment gives Congress the power to enforce its terms by remedial legislation.


Discriminatory Laws

Immediately after the ratification of the amendment, Congress passed the Enforcement Act of 1870, which made it a crime for public officers and private persons to obstruct the right to vote. Enforcement of this law was spotty and ineffective, and most of its provisions were repealed in 1894. Meanwhile, beginning in 1890, most of the states of the former Confederacy passed laws that were specifically designed to keep African Americans from voting. Literacy tests were a major disqualifier because at that time more than two-thirds of adult African Americans were illiterate. At the same time, white illiterates were allowed to vote under grandfather clauses, property qualifications, and “good character” exceptions, from which African Americans were excluded. Racially discriminatory enforcement of voting qualifications became the principal means by which African Americans were barred from the polls. In the absence of a statute, the only remedy for these discriminatory practices was case-by-case litigation. The Supreme Court, in case after case, struck down the discriminatory state practices. Grandfather clauses were invalidated in Guinn v. United States (1915). The state-mandated all-white primary was outlawed in Nixon v. Herndon (1927); party-operated all-white primaries were forbidden by Smith v. Allwright (1944) and Terry v. Adams (1953). The Court held in United States v. Thomas (1959) that phony polling place challenges to African Americans seeking to vote by the time the challenges had been resolved, the polls had closed were improper under the Fifteenth Amendment. Racial gerrymandering was forbidden by Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960). In that case, Alabama had redefined the shape of the city of Tuskegee so as to exclude all but four or five of its four hundred African American voters, thus denying this group the opportunity to influence city government. The Court also dealt with discriminatory administration of literacy tests in several cases, most important, Schnell v. Davis (1949), in which Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the Court, remarked that “the legislative setting and the great discretion it vested in the registrar made it clear that…the literacy requirement was merely a device to make racial discrimination easy.”


Voting Rights Act of 1965

The mass disenfranchisement of African Americans could not be reached efficiently or fully by means of individually brought cases. Although some of the discriminatory state practices were halted, every voting registration decision could be made on the basis of race if voting registrars wished to do so. Against this background, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment provided constitutional authority for this law, which was aimed at “ridding the country of racial discrimination in voting,” according to the statute's preamble. The law forbade a number of discriminatory practices. Literacy tests were “suspended” for five years in areas where voting discrimination had been most flagrant. To deal with voting discrimination through outright intimidation and violence, the law provided for federal voting registrars and protection by federal marshals. The first important cases arising under this law came to the Court in 1966. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966), the Court held unanimously that the most important provisions of the Voting Rights Act were constitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “the record here showed that in most of the States covered, various tests and devices have been instituted with the purpose of disenfranchising Negroes, have been framed in such a way as to facilitate this aim, and have been administered in a discriminatory fashion for many years. Under these circumstances, the 15th Amendment has clearly been violated.” Because Congress's power under the amendment is remedial, this finding of fact was necessary to invoke federal power. The broad construction of Congress's power to deal with discrimination in voting in South Carolina v. Katzenbach established an important precedent to which the Court consistently adhered. Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act in 1970 and extended the literacy test ban to the entire country. The extension reached New York State's English-language literacy test, which had the practical effect of disenfranchising many Puerto Rican voters. The English-language literacy test had been in place long before any substantial Puerto Rican migration to New York City had taken place. The extension was upheld by the Court in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970). Although the justices disagreed on some aspects of the new law, they were unanimous in upholding the constitutionality of the literacy test ban, even though there was no showing that New York had attempted to discriminate against Puerto Ricans. However, in Rome v. United States (1980), the Court became enmeshed in the question of the extent to which Congress may control state and local government under the Fifteenth Amendment. The question arose as to whether the remedial power reached only deliberate attempts by states and municipalities to deny Fifteenth Amendment voting rights or whether it was the effect of state practices on African American and by extension, other minority group voting that authorized federal action. The Court has not fully settled this extraordinarily complex constitutional question. Congress renewed and further extended the requirements of the Voting Rights Act again in 1982, this time for a period of twenty-five years. The effect of the Court's Fifteenth Amendment decisions coupled with the broader provisions of the Voting Rights Act has been immense. In 1961 only 1.2 million African Americans were registered to vote in the South one-quarter of voting-age blacks. By 1964 nearly 2 million were registered. In 1975 between 3.5 and 4 million blacks were registered to vote in the South. By the end of the century, although electoral turnout among African Americans and other persons of color in the United States is still lower than that of whites, the gap has nearly been closed. Formal legal discriminatory barriers to voting no longer exist.



Further Reading

  • One possible starting point for further study is Robert E. DiClerico's Voting in America: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004), a handy general reference work that covers the entire history of voting-rights issues in America. A study that focuses on the role of the Supreme Court in the extension and protection of voting rights is Charles L. Zelden's Voting Rights on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002). Jack Greenberg's Race Relations and American Law (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959) offers a good place to start for a comprehensive view of the constitutional rules before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. John Braeman's Before the Civil Rights Revolution: The Old Court and Individual Rights (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988) discusses the developing jurisprudence of the Court in the area of civil rights. For insight into the inner workings of the Warren Court, Bernard Schwartz's Inside the Warren Court (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), with Stephen Lesher, is based not only on the documentation but also on personal acquaintance. Compromised Compliance: Implementation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982) by Howard Ball, Dale Krane, and Thomas P. Lauth contains one of the first important discussions of the remedial versus effects morass in which the Court finds itself.
  • Using cases, Daniel Hays Lowenstein's Election Law (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1995) analyzes how the Supreme Court has treated questions regarding electoral structures and processes. J. Morgan Kousser's The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974) and Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) analyze the right to vote in the South, covering the Reconstruction era in the first volume and the post-World War II years in the second. Michael Dawson's Behind the Mule: Race and Class in American Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994) examines voting rights in connection with race as does Abigail M. Thernstrom's Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).