Adoption and Judicial Enforcement


The final decision of Congress not to include any-thing relating to the right to vote in the Fourteenth Amendment, aside from the provisions of section 2,1 left the issue of Negro suffrage solely with the states, and Northern states were generally as loath as Southern to grant the ballot to African-Americans, both the newly freed and those who had never been slaves.2 But, in the second session of the 39th Congress, the right to vote was extended to African-Americans by statute in the District of Columbia and the territories, and the seceded states as a condition of readmission had to guarantee Negro suffrage.3 Following the election of President Grant, the “lame duck” third session of the Fortieth Congress sent the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. The struggle was intense because Congress was divided into roughly three factions: those who opposed any federal constitutional guarantee of Negro suffrage, those who wanted to go beyond a limited guarantee and enact universal male suffrage, including abolition of all educational and property-holding tests, and those who wanted or who were willing to settle for an amendment merely proscribing racial qualifications in determining who could vote under any other standards the states wished to have.4 The latter group ultimately prevailed.

The Judicial View of the Amendment.

In its initial apprais-als of this Amendment, the Supreme Court appeared disposed to emphasize only its purely negative aspects. “The Fifteenth Amendment,” it announced, did “not confer the right . . . [to vote] 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.”5 But in subsequent cases, the Court, conceding “that this article” has originally been construed as giving “no affirmative right to the colored man to vote” and as having been “designed primarily to prevent discrimination against him,” professed to be able “to see that under some circumstances it may operate as the immediate source of a right to vote. In all cases where the former slave-holding States had not removed from their Constitutions the words ‘white man’ as a qualification for voting, this provision did, in effect, confer on him the right to vote, because . . . it annulled the discriminating word white, and this left him in the enjoyment of the same right as white persons. And such would be the effect of any future constitutional provision of a State which would give the right of voting exclusively to white people. . . .”6

Although “the immediate concern of the Amendment was to guarantee to the emancipated slaves the right to vote,” 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.”7 Moreover, the Court has construed “race” broadly to comprehend classifications based on ancestry as well as those based on race.8 “Ancestry can be a proxy for race,” the Court has explained, finding such a proxy in Hawaii’s limitation of the right to vote in a statewide election for an office responsible for administering a trust for the benefit of persons who can trace their ancestry to Hawaiian inhabitants of 1778.9

Grandfather Clauses.

Until quite recently, the history of the Fifteenth Amendment has been largely a record of belated judicial condemnation of various state efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans either overtly through statutory enactment or covertly through inequitable administration of electoral laws and toleration of discriminatory membership practices of political parties. Of several devices that have been held unconstitutional, one of the first was the “grandfather clause.” Beginning in 1895, several states enacted temporary laws whereby persons who had been voters, or descendants of those who had been voters, on January 1, 1867, could be registered notwithstanding their inability to meet any literacy requirement. Unable because of the date to avail themselves of the exemption, African-Americans were disabled to vote on grounds of illiteracy or through discriminatory administration of literacy tests, while illiterate whites were permitted to register without taking any tests. With the achievement of the intended result, most states permitted their laws to lapse, but Oklahoma’s grandfather clause had been enacted as a permanent amendment to the state constitution. A unanimous Court condemned the device as recreating and perpetuating “the very conditions which the [Fifteenth] Amendment was intended to destroy.”10

The Court did not experience any difficulty in voiding a subsequent Oklahoma statute of 1916 that provided that all persons, except those who voted in 1914, who were qualified to vote in 1916 but who failed to register between April 30 and May 11, 1916, with some exceptions for sick and absent persons who were given an additional brief period to register, should be perpetually disenfranchised. The Fifteenth Amendment, Justice Frankfurter declared for the Court, nullified “sophisticated as well as simple-minded modes of discrimination. It hits onerous procedural requirements which effectively handicap exercise of the franchise by the colored race although the abstract right to vote may remain unrestricted as to race.”11 The impermissible effect of the statute, the Court said, was automatically to continue as permanent voters, without their being obliged to register again, all white persons who were on registration lists in 1914 by virtue of the previously invalidated grandfather clause, whereas African-Americans, prevented from registering by that clause, had been afforded only a 20-day registration opportunity to avoid permanent disenfranchisement.

The White Primary.

The Court displayed indecision, how-ever, when it was called upon to deal with the exclusion of African-Americans from participation in primary elections. Prior to its becoming convinced that primary contests were in fact elections to which federal constitutional guarantees applied,12 the Court had relied upon the Equal Protection Clause to strike down the Texas White Primary Law13 as well as a later Texas statute that contributed to a similar exclusion by limiting voting in primary elections to members of state political parties as determined by the central committees of such parties.14 When exclusion of African-Americans was thereafter perpetuated by political parties not acting in obedience to any statutory command, this discrimination was for a time viewed as not constituting state action and therefore as not prohibited by either the Fourteenth or the Fifteenth Amendments.15 This holding was reversed nine years later when the Court declared that, where the selection of candidates for public office is entrusted by statute to political parties, a political party in making its selection at a primary election is a state agency, and consequently may not under the Fifteenth Amendment exclude African-Americans from such elections.16 An effort by South Carolina to escape the effects of this ruling by repealing all statutory provisions regulating primary elections and political organizations conducting them was nullified by a lower federal court with no doctrinal difficulty,17 but the Supreme Court, although nearly unanimous on the result, was unable to come to a majority agreement with regard to the exclusion of African-Americans by the Jaybird Association, a countywide organization that, independently of state laws and the use of state election machinery or funds, nearly monopolized access to Democratic nomination for local offices. The exclusionary policy was held unconstitutional but there was no opinion of the Court.18

Literacy Tests.

At an early date the Court held that literacy tests that are drafted so as to apply alike to all applicants for the voting franchise would be deemed to be fair on their face and in the absence of proof of discriminatory enforcement could not be said to deny equal protection .Voter qualifications19 But an Alabama constitutional amendment, the legislative history of which disclosed that both its object and its intended administration were to disenfranchise African-Americans, was held to violate the Fifteenth Amendment.20

Racial Gerrymandering.

The Court’s series of decisions in-terpreting the Equal Protection Clause as requiring the apportionment and districting of state legislatures solely on the basis of population21 had its beginning in Gomillion v. Lightfoot,22 in which the Court found a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment in the redrawing of a municipal boundary line into a 28-sided figure that excluded from the city all but four or five of 400 African-Americans but no whites, and that thereby continued white domination of municipal elections. Subsequent decisions, particularly concerning the validity of multi-member districting and alleged dilution of minority voting power, were decided under the Equal Protection Clause,23 and, in City of Mobile v. Bolden,24 in the course of a considerably divided decision with respect to the requirement of discriminatory motivation in Fifteenth Amendment cases,25 a plurality of the Court sought to restrict the Fifteenth Amendment to cases in which there is official denial or abridgment of the right to register and vote, and to exclude indirect dilution claims.26


See discussion under “Apportionment of Representation,” supra. Of course, the Equal Protection Clause has been extensively used by the Court to protect the right to vote. See “Fundamental Interests: The Political Process,” supra. back
Id. at 29–31; ch. 6, 14 Stat. 375 (1866) (District of Columbia); ch. 15, 14 Stat. 379 (1867) (territories); ch. 36, 14 Stat. 391 (1867) (admission of Nebraska to statehood upon condition of guaranteeing against racial qualifications in voting); ch. 153, 14 Stat. 428 (1867) (First Reconstruction Act). back
Gillette, supra, at 46–78. The congressional debate is conveniently collected in 1 B. SCHWARTZ, STATUTORY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES: CIVIL RIGHTS 372 (1971). back
United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 217–18 (1876); United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 566 (1876). back
Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 665 (1884); Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 363 (1915). A state constitutional provision limiting the right of suffrage to whites was automatically nullified by ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370 (1881). back
Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495 (2000). back
Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915) (invalidating Oklahoma exception to literacy requirement for any “lineal descendants” of persons entitled to vote in 1866). back
Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495, 514 (2000). back
Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915). back
Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268, 275 (1939). back
United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299 (1941); Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944). back
Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927). back
Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73 (1932). back
Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935). back
Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944). back
Rice v. Elmore, 165 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1947), cert. denied, 333 U.S. 875 (1948); see also Baskin v. Brown, 174 F.2d 391 (4th Cir. 1949). back
Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953). For analysis of the opinions, see “State Action,” supra. back
Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898); Cf. Lassiter v. Northampton County Bd. of Elections, 360 U.S. 45 (1959). back
Davis v. Schnell, 81 F. Supp. 872 (M.D. Ala. 1949), aff’d, 336 U.S. 933 (1949). back
See “Apportionment and Districting,” supra. back
364 U.S. 339 (1960). See also Wright v. Rockefeller, 376 U.S. 52 (1964). back
E.g., Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124 (1971); White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755 (1973). back
446 U.S. 55 (1980). back
On the issue of motivation versus impact under the equal protection clause, see discussion of “Testing Facially Neutral Classifications Which Impact on Minorities” in the Fourteenth Amendment, supra. On the plurality’s view, see 446 U.S. at 61–65. Justice White appears clearly to agree that purposeful discrimination is a necessary component of equal protection clause violation, and may have agreed as well that the same requirement applies under the Fifteenth Amendment. Id. at 94–103. Only Justice Marshall unambiguously adhered to the view that discriminatory effect is sufficient. Id. at 125. See also Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130, 146–49 & nn.3–5 (1976) (dissenting). back
446 U.S. at 65. At least three Justices disagreed with this view and would apply the Fifteenth Amendment to vote dilution claims. Id. at 84 n.3 (Justice Stevens concurring), 102 (Justice White dissenting), 125–35 (Justice Marshall dissenting). The issue was reserved in Rogers v. Lodge, 458 U.S. 613, 619 n.6 (1982). back