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Amdt15.S1.1 Right to Vote Clause Generally

Fifteenth Amendment, Section 1:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude–

In its initial interpretations of the Fifteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court emphasized its aspect as a right exempting individuals from voter discrimination, rather than conferring a right to vote. “The Fifteenth Amendment,” it announced, did “not confer the right of suffrage upon any one,” but merely “invested the citizens of the United States with a new constitutional right which is . . . exemption from discrimination in the exercise of the elective franchise on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 1 In subsequent cases, however, the Court, while conceding that the Amendment may have been originally construed as having been “designed primarily to prevent discrimination,” professed to be able “to see that under some circumstances it may operate as the immediate source of a right to vote.” 2

Although “the immediate concern of the Amendment was to guarantee to the emancipated slaves the right to vote,” the Court has stated that the Amendment “is cast in fundamental terms, terms transcending the particular controversy,” and “grants protection to all persons, not just members of a particular race.” 3 The Court has construed “race” broadly to include classifications based on ancestry as well as those based on race.4

United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 217–18 (1876) ( “The Fifteenth Amendment does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one. It prevents the States, or the United States, however, from giving preference, in this particular, to one citizen of the United States over another on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Before its adoption, this could be done. It was as much within the power of a State to exclude citizens of the United States from voting on account of race . . . as it was on account of age, property, or education. Now it is not.” ); See also, United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 555–56 (1876) ( “[T[he right of suffrage is not a necessary attribute of national citizenship; but that exemption from discrimination in the exercise of that right on account of race . . . is. The right to vote in the States comes from the States; but the right of exemption from the prohibited discrimination comes from the United States. The first has not been granted or secured by the Constitution of the United States; but the lat[ter] has been.” ). back
Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 665 (1884) (recognizing that in former slave-holding state constitutions where skin color was a qualification for voting, the Fifteenth Amendment in effect conferred the right to vote on an African American voter because “it annulled the discriminating word ‘white,’ and thus left him in the enjoyment of the same right as white persons” ); Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370 (1881). back
Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495, 512 (2000). back
Id. at 514 (2000) (acknowledging that “[a]ncestry can be a proxy for race” ). back