U.S. Constitution's Fifteenth Amendment: Removing Race Qualifications for Voting

The Fifteenth Amendment is the last of three amendments introduced in the wake of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment went further and declared that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Didn’t this provision automatically take care of voting rights? No, because the states each had their own rules governing voting rights. So citizenship alone didn’t guarantee the right to vote. Hence the need for the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, the main part of which reads as follows:

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.

The meaning of this provision is self-explanatory: Racial voting qualifications are no longer allowed. But is this all that the amendment means?

Some people, including some who are regarded as constitutional law experts, have suggested that the Fifteenth Amendment contains a “cluster” of rights that go way beyond the simple right to vote in elections. Where do these people get this idea from? Their argument runs along these lines:

  • The Fifteenth Amendment confers the right to vote.

  • But the right to vote isn’t confined to voting in elections.

  • Congressmen and other legislators also have the right to vote — for or against bills.

  • So the Fifteenth Amendment must include the right to run for election to Congress and state legislatures.

The meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment isn’t a problem. But the amendment does have two other major problems:

  • Was the Fifteenth Amendment validly ratified?

    It was proposed in 1869 by a Congress from which the 11 former breakaway Confederate states were excluded.

    Ten of these southern states ratified it in compliance to the First Reconstruction Act of March 2, — passed over the veto of President Andrew Johnson — gave all adult black males in those states the right to vote as a precondition of readmission of those states into the Union.

  • Did the Fifteenth Amendment have any effect in practice?

    In the North, yes. But in the border states, and in the South after 1876, blacks tended to be excluded from the vote by the imposition of literacy tests and poll taxes. Literacy tests were finally outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and poll taxes were eventually declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966.

After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the Republican Party in the South collapsed. The Democratic Party controlled the “solid South,” as it came to be known, until the 1960s. So, the really important election in the Southern states was not the general election but the Democratic primary. Here’s what a Texas statute said that was still in force in 1924: “in no event shall a negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic party primary election held in the State of Texas.” The U.S. Supreme Court declared this particular law unconstitutional, but it was not until 1944 that all-white primaries were completely banned.

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