Introduction To Federal Voting Rights Laws
Before the Voting Rights Act
Reconstruction and the Civil War Amendments
Before the Civil War the United States Constitution did not provide specific protections for voting.
Qualifications for voting were matters which neither the Constitution nor federal laws governed.
At that time, although a few northern states permitted a small number of free black men to register
and vote, slavery and restrictive state laws and practices led the franchise to be exercised
almost exclusively by white males.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War Congress enacted the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867,
which allowed former Confederate States to be readmitted to the Union if they adopted new state
constitutions that permitted universal male suffrage. The 14th Amendment, which conferred
citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, was ratified in 1868.
In 1870 the 15th Amendment was ratified, which provided specifically that the right to vote
shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
This superseded state laws that had directly prohibited black voting. Congress then enacted the
Enforcement Act of 1870, which contained criminal penalties for interference with the right to vote,
and the Force Act of 1871, which provided for federal election oversight.
As a result, in the former Confederate States, where new black citizens in some cases comprised
outright or near majorities of the eligible voting population, hundreds of thousands -- perhaps
one million -- recently-freed slaves registered to vote. Black candidates began for the first
time to be elected to state, local and federal offices and to play a meaningful role in their
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The extension of the franchise to black citizens was strongly resisted. Among others, the Ku
Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and other terrorist organizations attempted to
prevent the 15th Amendment from being enforced by violence and intimidation. Two decisions in
1876 by the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of enforcement under the Enforcement Act and the
Force Act, and, together with the end of Reconstruction marked by the removal of federal troops
after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, resulted in a climate in which violence could be used
to depress black voter turnout and fraud could be used to undo the effect of lawfully cast votes.
Once whites regained control of the state legislatures using these tactics, a process known
as "Redemption," they used gerrymandering of election districts to further reduce black
voting strength and minimize the number of black elected officials. In the 1890s, these states
began to amend their constitutions and to enact a series of laws intended to re-establish and
entrench white political supremacy.
Such disfranchising laws included poll taxes, literacy tests, vouchers of "good character,"
and disqualification for "crimes of moral turpitude." These laws were "color-blind"
on their face, but were designed to exclude black citizens disproportionately by allowing white
election officials to apply the procedures selectively. Other laws and practices, such as
the "white primary,", attempted to evade the 15th Amendment by allowing "private"
political parties to conduct elections and establish qualifications for their members.
As a result of these efforts, in the former Confederate states nearly all black citizens were
disenfranchised and removed from by 1910. The process of restoring the rights taken stolen by
these tactics would take many decades.
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Attacks on Disfranchisement Before the Voting Rights Act
In Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915), the Supreme Court held that
voter registration requirements containing "grandfather clauses,", which made voter
registration in part dependent upon whether the applicant was descended from men enfranchised
before enactment of the 15th Amendment violated that amendment. The Supreme Court found the
Oklahoma law was adopted in order to give whites, who might otherwise have been disfranchised by
the state's literacy test, a way of qualifying to vote that was not available to blacks.
In 1944, the Supreme Court held that the Texas "white primary" violated the 15th Amendment.
Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944). The Southern states experimented with
numerous additional restrictions to limit black participation in politics, many of which were
struck down by federal courts over the next decade.
Congress passed legislation in 1957, 1960, and 1964 that contained voting-related provisions.
The 1957 Act created the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice and the Commission
on Civil Rights; the Attorney General was given authority to intervene in and institute lawsuits
seeking injunctive relief against violations of the 15th Amendment. The 1960 Act permitted
federal courts to appoint voting referees to conduct voter registration following a judicial
finding of voting discrimination. The 1964 Act also contained several relatively minor
voting-related provisions. Although court decisions and these laws made it more difficult, at
least in theory, for states to keep all of their black citizens disenfranchised, the strategy of
litigation on a case-by-case basis proved to be of very limited success in the jurisdictions were
sued and it did not prompt voluntary compliance among jurisdictions that had not been sued.
Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other formal and informal practices combined to keep black
registration rates minimal in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and well below white
registration rates in the others.
Faced with the prospect that black voter registration could not be suppressed forever, however,
some states began to change political boundaries and election structures so as to minimize the
impact of black re-enfranchisement. In 1960, the Supreme Court struck down one such effort, in
which the state legislature had gerrymandered the city boundaries of Tuskegee, Alabama, so as to
remove all but a handful of the city's black registered voters. The Supreme Court ruled that by
doing so Alabama had violated the 15th Amendment. Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364
U.S. 339 (1960).
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The "Reapportionment Revolution"
In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court also overcame its reluctance to apply the Constitution
to unfair redistricting practices. Prior to 1962, the United States Supreme Court had declined
to decide constitutional challenges to legislative apportionment schemes, on the grounds that
such "political questions" were not within the federal courts' jurisdiction.
In Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), however, the Supreme Court recognized
that grossly malapportioned state legislative districts could seriously undervalue -- or dilute
-- the voting strength of the residents of overpopulated districts while overvaluing the voting
strength of residents of underpopulated districts. The Supreme Court found that such
malapportionment could be challenged in federal court under the Equal Protection Clause of the
In later cases including Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964),
and Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), the Supreme Court established the
one-person, one-vote principle. Because in many states malapportioned legislative districts had
resulted in sparsely-populated rural counties having a much greater share of their state's
political power than their state's population, correcting this imbalance led to dramatic
realignments of political power in several states. In Fortson v. Dorsey, 379
U.S. 433 (1965), the Supreme Court suggested, but did not hold, that certain types of
apportionment might unconstitutionally dilute the voting strength of racial minorities.
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