Elections Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 voteVote, right to in federal elections, such a right did not actually exist until conferred by the states. Consequently, no uniform national electorate existed for several decades.

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[case]Minor v. Happersett[Minor v. Happersett] (1875) that the right to vote was not a constitutionally protected right but a privilege conferred by an individual state.

Civil War Amendments

Civil War Amendments Regulation of elections and suffrage remained the exclusive domain of the states through the Civil War (1861-1865). Following the war, a major concern of Congress during ReconstructionReconstruction was the enfranchisement of former slaves. Congressional efforts produced the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment implied suffrage for African AmericansAfrican Americans;voting rights[voting rights] by providing that states’ representation in Congress could be reduced if they denied African Americans their voting rights. The Fifteenth AmendmentFifteenth Amendment prohibited the states or the federal government from excluding a person from voting on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

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[case]Reese, United States v.[Reese, United States v.] (1876), the Court pointed out that the FifteenthFifteenth Amendment Amendment did not confer suffrage on anyone but rather prohibited the states or the federal government from denying the franchise to anyone on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

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.

(Library of Congress)

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[case]Siebold, Ex parte[Siebold, Ex parte] (1880), Ex parte Clarke[case]Clarke, Ex parte[Clarke, Ex parte] (1880), and United States v. Gale[case]Gale, United States v.[Gale, United States v.] (1883), the Court upheld convictions of state officials for interfering with national elections. In Ex parte Yarbrough[case]Yarbrough, Ex parte[Yarbrough, Ex parte] (1884), the Court declared that voters in national elections got their right to vote from the U.S. Constitution, though the states could determine voter qualifications. This case also established federal power to protect the right to vote in national elections against private as well as state discrimination whether racially based or not.

Attempts at Circumvention

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[case]Williams v. Mississippi[Williams v. Mississippi] (1898), in which the Court allowed to stand a Mississippi law that authorized literacy tests and a poll tax.

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[case]Guinn v. United States[Guinn v. United States] (1915), the Court declared grandfather clausesGrandfather clause (stipulations that only those whose ancestors voted could also vote) to be unconstitutional violations of voting rights. This decision put the Court on record as regarding any attempts to disenfranchise voters because of their race or color as violations of the FifteenthFifteenth Amendment Amendment.

However, when the Court ruled in Newberry v. United States[case]Newberry v. United States[Newberry v. United States] (1921) that party primaries were not an integral part of the election process, this put primaries outside the reach of federal regulatory power. After this ruling, a number of states proceeded to adopt laws allowing political parties to determine who could vote in their nominating elections. In some states, laws stipulated that only whiteWhite primaries people could vote in primaries, effectively disenfranchising African Americans in the Democratic Party-dominated South. In 1927 the Court tried to end the practice by nullifying Texas’s white primary law in Nixon v. Herndon.[case]Nixon v. Herndon[Nixon v. Herndon] However, this decision failed to completely close the door, and political parties in several states were organized as private clubs, which excluded African Americans from participation in the nomination of candidates. In 1935 in Grovey v. Townsend,[case]Grovey v. Townsend[Grovey v. Townsend] the Court ruled that as private groups, the political parties were not subject to provisions of the Fourteenth and FifteenthFifteenth Amendment Amendments.

Six years later in United States v. Classic[case]Classic, United States v.[Classic, United States v.] (1941), the Court, realizing that the time, places, and manner clause of Article I was meaningless if primaries were not covered, reversed its Newberry position and declared primaries an integral part of the election process. Three years later in Smith v. Allwright[case]Smith v. Allwright[Smith v. Allwright] (1944), the Court struck down the private club claim, holding that when the political parties were acting as agents of the state in the primary election process, they were subject to provisions of the Fourteenth and FifteenthFifteenth Amendment Amendments. In one final effort, the Democratic Party in Texas formed the unofficial Jaybird Party to nominate candidates and thereby exclude African Americans from the process. However, in Terry v. Adams[case]Terry v. Adams[Terry v. Adams] (1953), the Court ruled that even though “unofficial,” the Jaybird Party was performing an official election function and was engaging in unconstitutional discrimination.

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[case]Gomillion v. Lightfoot[Gomillion v. Lightfoot] (1960), the Court struck down an Alabama law that redrew the boundaries of the city of Tuskegee in such a way that virtually all of the city’s African Americans were placed outside the city limits. The Court stated that this clearly violated their voting rights under the FifteenthFifteenth Amendment Amendment. In 1964 the Twenty-Fourth Amendment went into effect, outlawing poll taxes as a qualification for voting in federal elections, and in 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, designed to address any remaining pockets of discrimination against minority voters. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections[case]Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections[Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections] (1966), the Court banned poll taxesPoll taxes for all elections, saying they violated the equal protection clause. Also in 1966 the Court upheld the Voting Rights Act’s ban on literacy tests as a voting qualification (South Carolina v. Katzenbach) and New York’s English literacy requirement in Katzenbach v. Morgan.

Diluting the Vote

Representation, fairness ofWith the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the focus shifted slightly from voter access to efforts to dilute the voting power of minority voters or limit their chances of electoral success through such methods as at-largeAt-large elections[At large elections] elections, multimember districts and gerrymandering of election districts. In White v. Regester[case]White v. Regester[White v. Regester] (1973), the Court ruled that multimember districts violated voters’ constitutional rights when their effect was to dilute the voting strength of minority voters. However, in Mobile v. Bolden[case]Mobile v. Bolden[Mobile v. Bolden] (1980), the Court refused to strike down a system of at-largeAt-large elections[At large elections] elections in the absence of evidence of “intent to discriminate.” Congress responded by amending the Voting Rights Act in 1982 to include a “discriminatory results test” instead of the Court’s “discriminatory intent” standard. In Rogers v. Lodge[case]Rogers v. Lodge[Rogers v. Lodge] (1982), the Court blended the two, saying an intent to discriminate could be inferred from the results of an election that produced no African American office holders or a disproportionately small number of them.

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[case]Chisom v. Roemer[Chisom v. Roemer] (1991), the Court held that provisions of the Voting Rights Act apply to the election of judges as well as of other elected officials. In Dunn v. Blumstein[case]Dunn v. Blumstein[Dunn v. Blumstein] (1972), the Court invalidated Tennessee’s one-year residency requirement for state and local elections, expressing a preference for a thirty-day requirement. In Growe v. Emison[case]Growe v. Emison[Growe v. Emison] (1993), the Court ruled that when parallel redistricting plans are pending in state and federal courts, the federal courts must defer to the state courts. In Burson v. Freeman[case]Burson v. Freeman[Burson v. Freeman] (1992), the Court allowed Tennessee’s ban on campaigning within one hundred feet of voting places on election day, and in Burdick v. Takuski[case]Burdick v. Takusk[Burdick v. Takuski] (1992), the Court found that Hawaii’s ban on write-in votes did not impose unreasonable or discriminatory limits on the right to vote.


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[case]Colegrove v. Green[Colegrove v. Green] (1946), the majority held that redistricting was a “political issue” that the Court could not address. Malapportionment became more widespread, making voting strength from district to district more unequal.

In 1962 the Court agreed to revisit the issue and in Baker v. Carr[case]Baker v. Carr[Baker v. Carr] (1962) ruled that malapportionment was a justiciable issue under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although Baker set the precedent for Court-ordered apportionment, it left many questions unanswered. Further elaboration came quickly. In Gray v. Sanders[case]Gray v. Sanders[Gray v. Sanders] (1963), the Court held that a Georgia election plan that worked to the disadvantage of the more populous counties denied equal voting rights. In an 8-1 decision, the Court laid down the one person, one voteOne person, one vote concept concept. In Wesberry v. Sanders[case]Wesberry v. Sanders[Wesberry v. Sanders] (1964), the Court applied the same concept to districts for electing members of the House of Representatives. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo L. Black said that as nearly as possible one person’s vote in a congressional election should be worth as much as another’s.

Four months later in Reynolds v. Sims[case]Reynolds v. Sims[Reynolds v. Sims] (1964), the Court ruled that both houses of state legislatures must be based on population. In this decision Justice Earl Warren declared that Wesberry had established the principle that representative government meant equal representation for equal numbers of people. In Avery v. Midland County[case]Avery v. Midland County[Avery v. Midland County] (1968), the Court extended the one person, one vote concept to city and county governments. In Kirkpatrick v. Preisler[case]Kirkpatrick v. Preisler[Kirkpatrick v. Preisler] (1969) and Wells v. Rockefeller[case]Wells v. Rockefeller[Wells v. Rockefeller] (1969), the Court noted that the one person, one vote principle required that states make a good-faith effort to achieve precise mathematical equality in their distribution of population among districts.

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.

Further Reading
  • 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

Fifteenth Amendment

Financing political speech


Grandfather clause

Political parties

Poll taxes

Representation, fairness of

Twenty-fourth Amendment

Understanding tests

Vote, right to

Voting Rights Act of 1965

White primaries

Categories: History