The 15th Amendment prohibits using race as a factor to determine which citizens can vote.
After ratification of the 15th Amendment, Congress passes the Enforcement Act, which creates criminal penalties for those who interfere with voting rights. The next year, Congress passes the Force Act of 1871, which provides for federal oversight of elections if individual states are deemed unwilling to hold fair and open elections on their own.
Voting by freed African Americans dramatically changes the political climate in the southern states, enabling black candidates to win seats in Congress and the state legislatures. As part of an agreement that settles the disputed election of 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes orders the removal of troops from the states still under Reconstruction. He hopes this move will bring the North and South together. However, the withdrawal of the troops and the end of federal oversight of elections means that many southern blacks lose the voting rights they had exercised since Emancipation.
Southern states also impose literacy tests for voting, on the grounds that voters need to be educated to make good decisions. Because former slaves often have little education, and because white officials administer the tests, literacy tests exclude many African Americans from voting. In Williams v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court holds that Mississippi’s constitutional amendment requiring literacy tests does not violate the U.S. Constitution, as long as it is applied equally to all applicants.
In Hodges v. United States, three men were convicted of conspiring to drive African Americans from their jobs at a lumber mill by intimidation and threats in violation of federal law. When overturning the convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court explains that neither the 14th Amendment nor 15th Amendment gives Congress or any law enforcement officials the power to regulate purely private acts of discrimination. The Court also says that the 13th Amendment has no role in this case. Although the purpose of the 13th Amendment is to abolish forced labor, it does not give the Court the power to criminalize private actions that prevent citizens of African descent from making and carrying out labor agreements. Rather, the Court holds that the conspiracy charge is a state matter and not a federal government concern.
During this period of racial segregation, many Southern states adopt the policy of collecting a poll tax from voters on Election Day. This tactic successfully denied the right to vote to many African American voters who could not afford the tax. In yet another case that disenfranchised African American voters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Breedlove v Suttles that Georgia’s use of a poll tax did not violate the 14th or 15th Amendment. Poll taxes are regularly imposed until 1966, when the Supreme Court reverses itself in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.
In United States v. Classic, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the 15th Amendment forbids states from discriminating on the basis of race in primary elections. The Court holds that “under our Constitution the great privilege of the ballot may not be denied a man by the state because of his color.” Later rulings in Smith v. Allwright (1944) and Chapman v. King (1946) will confirm that primary elections are an important part of the electoral process.
The Democratic Party in several southern states limits participation to whites only in primary elections. The Supreme Court in Grovey v. Townsend (1935) upholds such restrictions, reasoning that political parties are organizations composed of voluntary members acting in a private capacity. The Court reverses itself in Smith v. Allwright (1944), concluding that even though administered by a private party, primary elections are an integral part of the election process and therefore subject to the constraints of the Fifteenth Amendment.
Although literacy tests for voting apply to both blacks and whites, they exclude more African Americans from registration because of poor education and discriminatory administration that require African American applicants to pass more difficult tests. The U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. Schnell hold Alabama’s literacy test unconstitutional as it is clearly intended to deny the vote to African Americans and thus violates the Fifteenth Amendment.
In response to low voter registration among African Americans, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposes the Civil Rights Act of 1957 — the first since Reconstruction. The law creates the Civil Rights Commission to investigate acts of interference with citizens’ right to vote and to monitor other civil rights abuses. Civil rights leaders complain that the law is weakened because it provides for violators to be tried locally, meaning that those attempting to disenfranchise blacks would gain a sympathetic jury.
Responding to civil rights protests in the South, Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after a lengthy filibuster by southern senators. The law prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, employment, education, and governmental services. The act also strengthens the Fifteenth Amendment by prohibiting discrimination in voting and makes voting requirements more uniform.
The Brennan Center for Justice and New York University’s School of Law files a class-action suit on behalf of 600,000 disenfranchised Florida citizens against an 1868 Florida law that permanently took away convicted felons’ right to vote — only one in seven states do so. They believe that the law is discriminatory in intent because it disproportionately affects African Americans, and, therefore, it violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition of discriminating against voters by race. In the case of Johnson v. Bush (2005), the U.S. Court of Appeals upholds the law on the grounds that it applies to all felons regardless of race.