Events at which the citizens of a nation vote to select governmental and other public officials and to approve or disapprove of various local propositions and measures.
The U.S. Constitution left elections and suffrage almost totally to the states’ discretion. Article I, section 2, provides that the electors (voters) of each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature. Although this clause provides a constitutional basis for the right to vote
The states gradually removed most of the barriers to voting for white men. However, they were slow to extend suffrage to others, and the courts hesitated to infringe on the traditional prerogative of state legislatures to confer the privilege of voting. For example, when the suffragettes (those seeking the right to vote for women) filed a suit claiming the right to vote under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled in Minor v. Happersett
These post-Civil War amendments designed to enfranchise African American voters led to a variety of efforts to block their participation and brought in a new player the Supreme Court. The Court’s early involvement was a delicate balancing act. It tried to provide some federal protection of voting rights while still accommodating the traditional state control of suffrage and elections. In the 1870’s the lower federal courts at first held that the right to vote, even in federal elections, derived from state constitutions and laws. In United States v. Reese
In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give women the right to vote. Not until the ratification of the Ninteeenth Amendment in 1920 would women be able to vote. The League of Women Voters was formed to make the most of this new power.
By the 1880’s the Court was beginning to uphold the federal government’s power to protect the right to vote in state elections against racially based denials by either state officials or private parties and in federal elections against denial from any source and for whatever reasons. In Ex parte Siebold
In response to growing federal pressure, the states and private parties devised various strategies for either legally denying or discouraging African Americans from voting. Among these were such devices as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, white primaries, and outright intimidation. In the 1890’s the Court acceded to such state disenfranchisement schemes in decisions such as Williams v. Mississippi
In the first half of the twentieth century, Congress and the Court began to address discrimination against voters more aggressively, and one by one the various discriminatory practices began to fall. In Guinn v. United States
However, when the Court ruled in Newberry v. United States
Six years later in United States v. Classic
With the white primary finally circumscribed by the Court, those seeking to deny African American voting rights turned to more subtle and indirect means of challenging the Court’s commitment to eliminating voter discrimination. In Gomillion v. Lightfoot
Although the Court has generally sought to make the election processes more open and democratic, as is shown in its decisions on the election of judges and voter residency requirements, it also seeks to leave as much control as possible to the states. In Chisom v. Roemer
Other than on the issue of minority voting rights, the most far-reaching actions of the Court have been in the area of apportionment and the instituting of the one person, one vote concept. Although most states had provisions calling for election districts to be redrawn after each U.S. Census, many either ignored this task or failed to take it seriously. Consequently, many election districts became badly malapportioned, with widely disparate populations. In California, Los Angeles County had 6 million residents while the least populous rural district had only 14,000. In Florida, the population of state senate districts ranged from 900,000 to 9,500. When this issue was brought to the Court in Colegrove v. Green
In 1962 the Court agreed to revisit the issue and in Baker v. Carr
Four months later in Reynolds v. Sims
Although its path has taken various twists and turns, generally the Court’s involvement in the electoral process has been directed toward making the process more open and accessible and making the rights of all voters and the relative strength of their votes as equal as possible. Through its decisions on elections and voting, the Court has been a major force for a more egalitarian democracy in the United States.
For a good general discussion of elections and their role in democratic government, see Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shafter’s Politics by Other Means: The Declining Importance of Elections in America (New York: Basic Books, 1990) and Do Elections Matter?, edited by Benjamin Ginsberg and Alan Stone (3d ed., New York: Sharpe, 1996). An excellent discussion of the legal and constitutional issues of elections and voting is Richard Claude’s The Supreme Court and the Electoral Process (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970). An account of the Court’s earlier role in expanding voting rights is Ward Elliott’s The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court’s Role in Voting Rights Disputes, 1845-1969 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Political Studies, 1974). Useful works on the issue of race and voting rights are Abigail M. Thernstrom’s Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1987) and Michael Dawson’s Behind the Mule: Race and Class in American Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994). Timothy G. O’Rourke’s The Impact of Reapportionment (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1980) provides a detailed analysis of the effect of the Court’s reapportionment decisions on voting and elections.
Civil Rights Acts
Equal protection clause
Financing political speech
Representation, fairness of
Vote, right to
Voting Rights Act of 1965