“[B]ecause of questions about its status amidst the messy and irregular politics of Reconstruction,” on 30 March 1870 Secretary of State Hamilton Fish proclaimed the 15th Amendment an official part of the U.S. Constitution; it had been ratified almost two months prior, on 03 February 1870.
The 15th Amendment declared that the right of U.S. citizens to vote could “not be abridged or denied” by any state due to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Congress passed the amendment on 26 February 1869.
One day after its adoption, New Jersey resident Thomas Peterson-Mundy became the first African American to vote under the authority of the 15th Amendment.
The Civil War had ended about five years earlier.
On 09 April 1865, Robert E. Lee had surrendered the last major Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. The last battle took place at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on 13 May 1865.
The 1860 Census reported a U.S. population of 31,443,321:
- Slaves in Lower South : 2,312,352 (47% of total population);
- Slaves in Upper South: 1,208758 (29%); and
- Slaves in Border States: 432,586 (13%).
Nearly 4 million Black people had been free by the 13th Amendment (passed by Congress on 31 January 1865 and ratified on 06 December 1865). They had their citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (passed by Congress on 13 June 1866 and ratified 09 July 1868).
You would think that, having been granted full rights of citizenship under the 14th Amendment, Black men (remember, women could not yet vote) would be able to vote.
However, Congress needed to act in 1869 to explicitly give Black males the right to vote. A Constitutional amendment had not been sufficient to overturn White Supremacy. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, Southern states soon passed new laws to restrict the voting rights of Black Americans.
African Americans exercised the right to vote and held office in many Southern states through the 1880s, but in the early 1890s, steps were taken to ensure subsequent “white supremacy.” Literacy tests for the vote, “grandfather clauses” excluding from the franchise all whose ancestors had not voted in the 1860s, and other devices to disenfranchise African Americans were written into the laws of former Confederate states.
Congress finally acted on the challenge of White Supremacy during the Presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) “abolished all remaining deterrents to exercising the right to vote and authorized federal supervision of voter registration where necessary.”
Authorized by the 15th Amendment, the VRA is one of the most consequential laws ever enacted. It dismantled Jim Crow practices that severely restricted African-American access to the ballot, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. For some 50 years, it helped ensure that democracy reflected the country’s diversity.
But White Supremacists never give up.
On 29 June 1982 President Ronald Reagan signed a 25-year extension of the VRA. According to St. Louis Magazine, even then politicians had “fought to rewrite it to put the burden on the voter to prove discrimination.”
Then came Shelby County v. Holder.
On 25 June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court (5-4 vote) removed key federal oversight of voting rules and regulations in 15 states (nine states in whole and six partially*). Thus those states “no longer need[ed] to seek preclearance” before changing laws related to voting rights, including days, times, locations and technologies.
In so doing, the SCOTUS shifted the burden of proof for discrimination from state government action to voters impacted by the changes.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this decision. The power of the Voting Rights Act was in the design that the supreme court gutted – discriminatory voting policies could be blocked before they harmed voters. The law placed the burden of proof on government officials to prove why the changes they were seeking were not discriminatory. Now, voters who are discriminated against now bear the burden of proving they are disenfranchised.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg compared the majority’s approach to dismantling the VRA like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Federal oversight of changes in voting laws “has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes,” she wrote.
The concerns expressed by minority have come to pass.
Immediately after the decision, Republican lawmakers in Texas and North Carolina – two states previously covered by the law – moved to enact new voter ID laws and other restrictions. A federal court would later strike down the North Carolina law, writing it was designed to target African Americans “with almost surgical precision”…
Between 2012 and 2018, there were 1,688 polling place closures in states previously covered by section five of the Voting Rights Act.
The 2020 presidential election was only the second since 1965 where the VRA was not in full effect. The Republican candidate lost, and subsequently Republican-led states have gone into overdrive introducing voting restrictions.
Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the election results, an endeavor that culminated in the 6 January assault on the Capitol, ultimately failed. But the lies the former president spread about fraud and the integrity of the 2020 results have stuck around in a dangerous way. False claims about the election have moved to the center of the Republican party.
According to the Voting Rights Lab, as of 02 December 2021 state legislators had introduced 2,776 elections-related bills during the calendar year. Of those bills, 275 became the law in 45 states with 109 being pro-voter; 47 anti-voter; 27 neutral; and 92 mixed or unclear.
Other organizations labeled those actions differently. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that from 01 January to 07 December 2021, at least 19 states [had] passed 34 laws restricting access to voting.
“There is a continual drumbeat from the former president that the election was stolen — this is an issue that state legislators feel pressure from Trump from above and from the base from below that’s demanding that steps be taken,” said Rick Hasen, a professor and election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “So this is an issue that’s going to remain, unfortunately, front and center.”
In 2021, Republican-led legislatures in dozens of states enacted wide-ranging laws overhauling their election systems, and G.O.P. lawmakers are planning a new wave of such laws in 2022…
… the party is taking a two-pronged approach: Imposing additional restrictions on voting (especially mail voting), and giving Republican-controlled state legislatures greater control over the administration of elections.
As of mid-January 2022, state legislators had introduced “more new restrictive voting legislation than at this time last year.”
Congress has the power to take bold action now to protect American voters from the kinds of restrictions enacted this year and the looming threats to voters and elections that may be imposed in 2022 and beyond. Two bills that would head off many of the assaults on free and fair elections have passed the House of Representatives and are awaiting Senate votes.
The Freedom to Vote Act is a broad package of voting, redistricting, election security, and campaign finance reforms that would ensure minimum national standards for voting access for every American. It would also prevent partisans from sabotaging election results. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would prevent discriminatory practices and rules in voting from being implemented in states and localities where discrimination is persistent and pervasive, protecting access to the vote for all eligible voters, regardless of race, color, or membership in language minority groups. And it would restore voters’ ability to challenge discriminatory laws nationwide.
So far, Senate Republicans have successfully blocked both measures.
- For much of America’s history, voting was a non-secret affair, 27 February 2022
- Republicans challenge updated voting technologies, starting with Georgia, 25 March 2022
* The nine: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. The six: California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.