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Protecting the Right to Vote

The 15th Amendment and today's fight

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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

Section 1

"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." 

 

Section 2

"The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

[National Constitution Center]

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:

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. 

THEN

Grandfather clauses

  • 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]

Jim Crow

The "Jim Crow South" started in 1865 and lasted for about 100 years.  [HISTORY] Literacy tests and poll taxes were specifically designed to keep Black Americans from voting. [HISTORY]

Violence

Threats and acts of violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan added to widespread disenfranchisement. [Encyclopedia Britannica]

  • The Third Force Act of 1871 allowed President Grant to declare martial law to use military force to fight against the terrorist organization, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK). [HISTORY]

NOW

Still fighting

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]

Registration restrictions

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]

Closing locations

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]

 

 

Felon disenfranchisement

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]

WHERE WE ARE NOW

  • 2020: The U.S. celebrates the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, and the 55th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. [USA Today]
  • 2018: Flordia restored the voting rights of more than 1 million former felons that were previously disenfranchised. [TIME]
  • 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

This article is aligned with Purple for Democracy, a movement to support democracy through non-partisan, non-political content. 

 

Learn more about the Purple movement here

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