The Amendments Series: The Fifteenth Amendment

i voted sticker lot
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“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 Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The Fifteen Amendment is likely one that, when you see it, is an obvious and perhaps even “boring” amendment? I mean, is there really anything to unpack? It’s just that people have a right to vote, right?

person dropping paper on box

Well, kind of, but there’s far more to it than that and that’s not exactly what the amendment says is it? It doesn’t say, “anyone of any race, color or previous servitude” has a right to vote. No, it says, this right shall not be denied or abridged by either the federal or state governments. This should remind you a bit of my article on the 19th Amendment.

Many of us think of voting as a fundamental Constitutional right, when in fact, there’s nothing in the Constitution or Bill or Rights that mentions the “right to vote”. Interesting, right?

But, it really isn’t that interesting given the fact that the founders didn’t write the Constitution to enumerate rights. Perhaps I’m beating a dead horse here since I say this again and again and again, but that’s how deeply ingrained the idea that the Constitution does list rights is in the American psyche. I’m trying to break that mindset and replace it with the correct one.

So, no, it shouldn’t be shocking that there is no “right to vote” in the Constitution and the Fifteenth Amendment also doesn’t list the “right to vote”. It simply gives Congress the power to prevent states from writing laws that would hinder individuals from voting, specifically because of race, color or previous servitude.

That’s it. I won’t rehash all the foundational information about rights and the growth of the federal Constitution to confine state power, but don’t forget that context. Also, do remember that, at the time of the founding, every state handled voting very differently. There is no one size fits all, which is why the founders left most of voting issue in the hands of the states. This is not to say that the laws the states used to suppress citizen’s ability to vote were good or virtuous, but they were within the state’s hands to write.

hands with vote pins

What happened after the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified?

Blacks were able to vote and did so with influence for about 30 years, until states began passing laws that made it almost impossible for many blacks and even poor whites to vote. States passed literacy tests, character tests, voting taxes or a litany of others hurdles meant to prevent or hinder blacks from voting. Ah government, it never ceases to abuse.

So, even though the Fifteenth Amendment technically guaranteed that Congress could write laws enforcing states to no longer pass laws preventing individuals from voting because of race, state governments figured out ways to circumvent this–well, technically, Congress just didn’t write any laws and again passed the buck off the Court and the Court, aware of it’s boundaries, was reticent to do much.

So, Congress didn’t really do anything about the oppressive state laws but the Supreme Court did eventually weigh in some. At first, they maintained that Congress didn’t have the power to force state compliance to the amendment and then began to strike down a few state laws that they claimed violated the amendment. However, it wasn’t until Congress weighed in with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that things began to change. Ultimately, the eventual abolishment of these oppressive laws really came as a result of the Supreme Court’s reinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and that it protects the “right to vote” as a general matter.

Current political debates about this topic center around issues like district lines and voter ID laws. Will the Court extrapolate for Congress or themselves the power to strike down laws that are not explicitly preventing voting based on race (as they already did with the laws requiring voting tests etc) or will they not? It’s a pretty simple answer. They almost always eventually fall on the side of more power. If they don’t at first, they eventually get there.

The debates about voter ID and district lines will continue to rage and sadly there is no clear answer because the Court and Congress are operating in a realm of arbitrary power that has no clear limitations.

The Liberty Belle

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