WHAT IT IS
- The 15th Amendment outlaws discrimination in voting on the basis of "race", "color", or "previous condition of servitude."
- The 15th Amendment was passed by Congress on February 26, 1869. [National Constitution Center]
- The 15th Amendment is considered one of three "Civil War amendments" that tried to ensure Constitutional equality for African-Americans or Black Americans after the Civil War.
15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
"The rights 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 Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
How the ratification process took shape for the 15th Amendment:
- Feb. 26, 1869: Both houses of Congress voted with a two-thirds majority to pass the 15th Amendment The amendment was then sent to the state legislatures for ratification.
- Mar. 1, 1869: Nevada was the first state to ratify the 15th Amendment. [HISTORY]
- Mar. 30, 1870: Iowa became the 28th state to ratify, reaching the three-fourths majority to make the 15th Amendment officially apart the U.S. Constitution. [The Wall Street Journal]
- Apr. 2, 1997: Tennessee became the last state in the country to ratify. Read from The Tennessee Star as to why it took the state so long to ratify.
Some historians record this ratification process as a "readmission" into the Union for many southern states who attempted to secede from the Union during the Civil War. [The Tennessee Star]
WHY IT MATTERS
CIVICS: The right to vote was not considered to be a fundamental right by the Founding Fathers, therefore, was not included in the original U.S. Constitution. It only came later through the 15th, 19th, and 26th constitutional amendments. [Encyclopedia Britannica]
Often the specific details and guarantees, including funding, management, and law enforcement, come later through legislative action either at the federal or state level. For example, the 15th Amendment received further support through:
- The Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871
- The Third Force Act (Klu Klux Klan Act) of 1871
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965 [HISTORY]
But what happens if Congress does not act?
SOCIAL: Amendments to the Constitution may not ensure society will adopt their well-intended meaning. Decades later, Black Americans are still fighting for the right to vote.
- Louisiana passed the first "grandfather clause" in 1896 to keep former slaves and their descendants from voting. [Encyclopedia Britannica]
- Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia followed.
- Oklahoma's grandfather clause was a permanent amendment to the state constitution. [Justia]
- 1915: The Supreme Court ruled grandfather clauses unconstitutional. [Encyclopedia Britannica]
- 1940: 3% of eligible Black Americans in the South were registered to vote. [American Civil Liberties Union]
- 1949: The Supreme Court ruled literacy tests as unconstitutional. [Annenberg Classroom]
- 1964: Poll taxes were abolished by the 24th Amendment. In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled to extend the ban to state and local elections. [Encyclopedia Britannica]
Threats and acts of violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan added to widespread disenfranchisement. [Encyclopedia Britannica]
150 years later, voter suppression is still an issue for black Americans and minority groups. [USA Today]
Photo ID requirements
36 states have voter identification requirements, meaning you have to show a form of ID at the poll. [National Conference of State Legislatures]
A study from the University of California, San Diego found that strict photo ID laws have a "differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections." [The Atlantic]
Advocates maintain that it is harder for citizens to register and stay registered. [Brennan Center for Justice
- Ohio and Georgia passed controversial "use it or lose it" voter purging laws [NPR]
- Students attending colleges out of state often have a difficult time casting their vote, due to restrictive laws state-by-state. [The New York Times]
Since 2012, 13 states across the south closed around 1,700 polling places. [USA Today]
For example, seven counties in Georgia now have only one polling place. These counties have a majority population of Black or Hispanic Americans. [Reuters]
Some argue that removing the voting privileges of individuals convicted of a felony is a form of voter suppression.
Virginia, Kentucky, and Iowa have laws that permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions. [American Civil Liberties Union]
- After the 2008 election, there was a national spike in voter suppression efforts. [Brennan Center for Justice]
- Since the 2010 election, 25 states have introduced and/or passed voter restriction laws.
- Click here to see a state-by-state breakdown. [Brennan Center for Justice]
- Many believe the 2013 Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder allowed for states to enact these voter restriction laws. [Brennan Center for Justice]
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
- One day after the 15th Amendment was ratified, Thomas Mundy Peterson of New Jersey became the first Black person to vote. [HISTORY]
- The 1787 U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not include the right to vote. Voting was seen as a "political" right and not an "inalienable" right for all people. [National Constitution Center]
- Maine and Vermont are the only states to maintain a legal right for "everyone" to vote. [American Civil Liberties Union]
- How does gerrymandering affect voters, specifically voters of minority racial and ethnic groups?
- Columbia University history professor Eric Foner said, "... the history of the 15th Amendment also shows rights can never be taken for granted: Things can be achieved and things can be taken away." [USA Today]