The 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race. However, many states had voting policies that prevented African-Americans from registering and voting in elections. The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, attempted to remedy this discrimination with strict penalties for denying anyone's right to vote. The law was strengthened by its reliance on the 15th Amendment, which empowered Congress to enforce its provisions using appropriate federal legislation.
Reconstruction and Ratification
After the Civil War, two constitutional amendments were ratified. The 14th Amendment guaranteed equal protection of the law, while the more specific 15th Amendment forbade the government from denying citizens the right to vote based on their race or skin color. The 15th Amendment enjoyed short-lived success, with more than 700,000 African-Americans -- many of them former slaves -- registering to vote during Reconstruction. Much of this success was due in part to enforcement laws passed by Congress shortly after the 15th Amendment was ratified. However, by 1894 many parts of the Enforcement Act of 1870 had either been struck down by the Supreme Court or repealed by Congress, and the only way to enforce 15th Amendment rights was civil suit in federal court. This remedy was slow and cumbersome, requiring financial resources not available to most people whose rights had been violated.
Breaking Down Barriers
In many parts of the country, particularly in the South, African-Americans faced tremendous difficulties exercising their right to vote. Those who attempted to register were often forced to pay poll taxes they could not afford. Other states had "literacy tests" they required African-Americans to pass so they could register. These tests sometimes included such difficult tasks as reciting the entire constitution from memory, and were clearly designed to prohibit African-Americans from registering to vote. Once registered, minorities also were kept from voting by local officials who would tell them they were at the wrong polling place, or had the wrong date or time to vote. The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited these sorts of policies and imposed stiff criminal penalties for denying anyone the right to vote. The success of the law can be seen in states like Mississippi, where African-American voter turnout increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969.
The Voting Rights Act required direct federal oversight of voting and registration procedures in parts of the country where discrimination was greatest. If fewer than 50 percent of an area's eligible voters were registered, federal examiners were appointed to review the registration process. Those examiners had the power to register citizens themselves if necessary. Any changes in registration or elections procedure had to be approved either by the U.S. attorney general or the federal District Court in D.C. New procedures would be approved only if the attorney general or court found no discriminatory purpose or effect. This direct federal control was possible only because of the enforcement provision of the 15th Amendment, which the Supreme Court ruled superseded all other assertions of states' rights to the contrary.
The Constitutional Challenge
Almost immediately after the Voting Rights Act became law, South Carolina challenged its constitutionality in the Supreme Court. The state contended direct federal oversight of state election registration and procedures violated the Constitution's basic provisions that powers not explicitly granted to Congress were reserved by the states. However, the Supreme Court disagreed. Congress enacted the law under the enforcement clause of the 15th Amendment, which allows Congress to enforce its provisions using appropriate legislation. The court found the 15th Amendment was self-executing and superseded anything to the contrary found in other parts of the Constitution. Moving on to the other part of the 15th Amendment's enforcement clause, the court concluded Congress was well within its power to focus on specific regions where voter discrimination was the greatest.
- U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Home Page: The Voting Rights Act of 1965
- History.com: Voting Rights Act
- U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Voting Rights and Political Representation in the Mississippi Delta
- Our Documents: Voting Rights Act (1965)
- Justia US Supreme Court Center: South Carolina v. Katzenbach -- 383 U.S. 301 (1966)
- William Lovelace/Hulton Archive/Getty Images