Constitution of the United States/Fifteenth Amend./Section 1 Right to Vote

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Constitutional Law Treatise
Table of Contents
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Constitutional Law Outline
Introduction
The Preamble
Article I Legislative Branch
Art. I, Section 1 Legislative Vesting Clause
Art. I, Section 2 House of Representatives
Art. I, Section 3 Senate
Art. I, Section 4 Congress
Art. I, Section 5 Proceedings
Art. I, Section 6 Rights and Disabilities
Art. I, Section 7 Legislation
Art. I, Section 8 Enumerated Powers
Art. I, Section 9 Powers Denied Congress
Art. I, Section 10 Powers Denied States
Article II Executive Branch
Art. II, Section 1 Function and Selection
Art. II, Section 2 Powers
Art. II, Section 3 Duties
Art. II, Section 4 Impeachment
Article III Judicial Branch
Art. III, Section 1 Vesting Clause
Art. III, Section 2 Justiciability
Art. III, Section 3 Treason
Article IV Relationships Between the States
Art. IV, Section 1 Full Faith and Credit Clause
Art. IV, Section 2 Interstate Comity
Art. IV, Section 3 New States and Federal Property
Art. IV, Section 4 Republican Form of Government
Article V Amending the Constitution
Article VI Supreme Law
Article VII Ratification
First Amendment: Fundamental Freedoms
Religion
Establishment Clause
Free Exercise Clause
Free Speech Clause
Freedom of Association
Second Amendment: Right to Bear Arms
Third Amendment: Quartering Soldiers
Fourth Amendment: Searches and Seizures
Fifth Amendment: Rights of Persons
Sixth Amendment: Rights in Criminal Prosecutions
Seventh Amendment: Civil Trial Rights
Eighth Amendment: Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Ninth Amendment: Unenumerated Rights
Tenth Amendment: Rights Reserved to the States and the People
Eleventh Amendment: Suits Against States
Twelfth Amendment: Election of President
Thirteenth Amendment: Abolition of Slavery
Thirteenth Amend., Section 1 Prohibition on Slavery and Involuntary Servitude
Thirteenth Amend., Section 2 Enforcement
Fourteenth Amendment: Equal Protection and Other Rights
Fourteenth Amend., Section 1 Rights
Fourteenth Amend., Section 2 Apportionment of Representation
Fourteenth Amend., Section 3 Disqualification from Holding Office
Fourteenth Amend., Section 4 Public Debt
Fourteenth Amend., Section 5 Enforcement
Fifteenth Amendment: Right of Citizens to Vote
Fifteenth Amend., Section 1 Right to Vote
Fifteenth Amend., Section 2 Enforcement
Sixteenth Amendment: Income Tax
Seventeenth Amendment: Popular Election of Senators
Eighteenth Amendment: Prohibition of Liquor
Eighteenth Amend., Section 1 Prohibition
Eighteenth Amend., Section 2 Enforcement of Prohibition
Eighteenth Amend., Section 3 Ratification Deadline
Nineteenth Amendment: Women's Suffrage
Twentieth Amendment: Presidential Term and Succession
Twentieth Amend., Section 1 Terms
Twentieth Amend., Section 2 Meetings of Congress
Twentieth Amend., Section 3 Succession
Twentieth Amend., Section 4 Congress and Presidential Succession
Twentieth Amend., Section 5 Effective Date
Twentieth Amend., Section 6 Ratification
Twenty-First Amendment: Repeal of Prohibition
Twenty-First Amend., Section 1 Repeal of Eighteenth Amendment
Twenty-First Amend., Section 2 Importation, Transportation, and Sale of Liquor
Twenty-First Amend., Section 3 Ratification Deadline
Twenty-Second Amendment: Presidential Term Limits
Twenty-Second Amend., Section 1 Limit
Twenty-Second Amend., Section 2 Ratification Deadline
Twenty-Third Amendment: District of Columbia Electors
Twenty-Third Amend., Section 1 Electors
Twenty-Third Amend., Section 2 Enforcement
Twenty-Fourth Amendment: Abolition of Poll Tax
Twenty-Fourth Amend., Section 1 Poll Tax
Twenty-Fourth Amend., Section 2 Enforcement
Twenty-Fifth Amendment: Presidential Vacancy
Twenty-Fifth Amend., Section 1 Presidential Vacancy
Twenty-Fifth Amend., Section 2 Vice President Vacancy
Twenty-Fifth Amend., Section 3 Declaration by President
Twenty-Fifth Amend., Section 4 Declaration by Vice President and Others
Twenty-Sixth Amendment: Reduction of Voting Age
Twenty-Sixth Amend., Section 1 Eighteen Years of Age
Twenty-Sixth Amend., Section 2 Enforcement
Twenty-Seventh Amendment: Congressional Compensation

Fifteenth Amendment Right of Citizens to Vote

Section 1 Right to Vote

Clause Text
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-

Right to Vote Clause Generally[edit | edit source]

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]

Grandfather Clauses[edit | edit source]

The history of the Fifteenth Amendment has often been 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 practices.[5] One of the first devices declared unconstitutional by the Court was the "grandfather clause."[6] Beginning in 1895, several states enacted laws in which persons who had been voters or descendants of voters before the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments could be registered without meeting any literacy requirement. Black voters were therefore unable to avail themselves of the grandfather clause, and then kept from voting on grounds of illiteracy or through discriminatory administration of literacy tests. Meanwhile, illiterate White citizens could register without taking any literacy tests. With the achievement of the intended result, most states permitted these laws to lapse, but the State of Oklahoma's grandfather clause had been enacted as a permanent amendment to the state constitution.[7] A unanimous Court in the 1915 case Guinn v. United States condemned the device as recreating and perpetuating "the very conditions which the [Fifteenth] Amendment was intended to destroy."[8]

The Court voided a subsequent Oklahoma statute providing that persons who were qualified to vote in 1916, but who failed to register between April 30 and May 11, 1916, should be perpetually disenfranchised.[9] The effect of this statute was that Black voters only had a twenty-day registration opportunity to avoid permanent disenfranchisement by virtue of the invalidated grandfather clause in Guinn. In striking down the law, Justice Felix Frankfurter declared for the Court that the Fifteenth Amendment 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."[10]

Exclusion from Primaries and Literacy Tests[edit | edit source]

During the same period, the Court faced the exclusion of African Americans from participation in primary elections. While the Court did rule in 1927 that a State of Texas law violated the Equal Protection Clause by prohibiting Black voters from participating in a party primary, it did not hold at first that primary contests were elections to which federal constitutional guarantees applied.[11] Instead, the Court found that when an exclusion was perpetuated by political parties not acting in obedience to any statutory command, the discrimination did not constitute state action and was therefore not prohibited.[12] This holding was reversed nine years later in Smith v. Allwright when the Court declared that, where the selection of candidates for public office is entrusted by statute to political parties, a political party is acting as a state entity and must abide by the Fifteenth Amendment.[13] A severely divided Court was later faced with the exclusion of African Americans by a private organization that, independently of state law or the use of state election funds, monopolized access to Democratic nominations for local office. The exclusionary policy was struck down as unconstitutional but there was no opinion of the Court.[14]

In 1898, the Court held that literacy tests that apply to all voters equally are fair on their face, and in the absence of proof of discriminatory enforcement could not be said to deny equal protection.[15] The Court did, however, affirm striking down a literacy test in the State of Alabama's constitutional amendment, the legislative history of which disclosed that its intent was to disenfranchise Black voters in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment.[16] After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,[17] when Congress amended the Act to suspend literacy tests throughout the Nation, the Court unanimously sustained the action as a valid measure to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.[18]

Racial Gerrymandering and Right to Vote Clause[edit | edit source]

The Court has held that racially-based redistricting in order to dilute minority voting power is unconstitutional under the Fifteenth Amendment.[19] In Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the Court found a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment in the redrawing of a 1957 municipal boundary line in Tuskegee, Alabama, from a square into a twenty-eight-sided figure that excluded from municipal elections all but a few of its 400 Black voters but no White voters.[20]

In the 1980 case City of Mobile v. Bolden, in a considerably divided decision with respect to the requirement of discriminatory intent,[21] a plurality of the Court sought to restrict the Fifteenth Amendment to cases in which there is direct denial or abridgment of the right to register and vote, and to exclude dilution claims, such as the challenge to an at-large electoral system at issue.[22] Three Justices in separate opinions disagreed with the plurality's basis for putting aside the Fifteenth Amendment and suggested they would have applied the Amendment to the vote dilution claim.[23]

Subsequent decisions have largely adopted the view of Justice Charles Whitaker's concurrence[24] in Gomillion to resolve allegations of racial gerrymandering under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[25] Despite the Court's acknowledgments that racial gerrymandering may violate the purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment continues to be the predominant constitutional authority in such cases.[26]

  1. 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.").
  2. 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).
  3. Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495, 512 (2000).
  4. Id. at 514 (2000) (acknowledging that "[a]ncestry can be a proxy for race").
  5. See e.g., Neal, 103 U.S. at 388-89 (holding a state constitution that limited the franchise to White males unconstitutional).
  6. Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 359 (1915).
  7. Id.
  8. Id. at 360.
  9. Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939).
  10. Id. at 275.
  11. Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 541 (1927) ("We find it unnecessary to consider the Fifteenth Amendment, because it seems to us hard to imagine a more direct and obvious infringement of the Fourteenth."). See also Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73 (1932).
  12. Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935).
  13. Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944); United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299 (1941) (holding that Section 4 of Article I of the Constitution, the Elections Clause, authorizes Congress to regulate primary as well as general elections).
  14. Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953).
  15. Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898); Cf. Lassiter v. Northampton Cnty. Bd. of Elections, 360 U.S. 45 (1959).
  16. Davis v. Schnell, 81 F. Supp. 872 (M.D. Ala. 1949), aff'd, 336 U.S. 933 (1949).
  17. For discussion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and cases related to enforcement of federal statutes passed under the Fifteenth Amendment, see Fifteenth Amend., Sec. 2: State Action Doctrine and Enforcement Clause through Fifteenth Amend., Sec. 2: Federal Remedial Legislation.
  18. Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970).
  19. Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960).
  20. 364 U.S. 339 (1960); Wright v. Rockefeller, 376 U.S. 52 (1964) (extending the reasoning of Gomillion to congressional districting but finding insufficient evidence of discriminatory intent).
  21. 446 U.S. 55, 61-65 (1980) (rejecting race-based redistricting Fifteenth Amendment claim on the basis that "action by a State that is racially neutral on its face violates the Fifteenth Amendment only if motivated by a discriminatory purpose"); Id. at 125 (Marshall, J., dissenting, adhering to the view that discriminatory effect is sufficient). But see Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 35 (1986) (reassessing Voting Rights Act Section 2, currently codified at 52 U.S.C. § 10301, after 1982 Voting Rights Act amendment establishing "results" language in response to City of Mobile v. Bolden).
  22. 446 U.S. at 65. See also, Rogers v. Lodge, 458 U.S. 613, 619 n.6 (1982) (recounting the split opinions in City of Mobile but "express[ing] no view on the application of the Fifteenth Amendment to this case").
  23. City of Mobile, 446 U.S. 84-85 (Stevens, J., concurring), 102 (White, J., dissenting), 125-35 (Marshall, J., dissenting).
  24. Gomillion, 364 U.S. 349. (Whitaker, J., concurring).
  25. E.g., Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630, 645 (1993) ("This Court's subsequent reliance on Gomillion in other Fourteenth Amendment cases suggests the correctness of Justice Whittaker's view."). See also Cooper v. Harris, 137 S. Ct. 1455 (2017); White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755 (1973); Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124 (1971).
  26. Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900 (1995) (citing Shaw, 509 U.S. at 657, and stating "Racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may balkanize us into competing racial factions; it threatens to carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters--a goal that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments embody, and to which the Nation continues to aspire.") (citations omitted). See Fourteenth Amend., Sec. 1: Racial Vote Dilution and Racial Gerrymandering.