Delineation of which persons are granted suffrage under the U.S. Constitution or by legislation.
In Reynolds v. Sims
Suffrage has been extended and expanded primarily by constitutional amendment and legislative enactment, not as a result of Court rulings. In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment
The Court’s involvement with suffrage takes three forms: First, it determines whether a right to vote exists under any given circumstance. Second, it decides what legal protection is available to citizens who are prohibited from exercising their right to vote. Third, it examines whether electoral districts are properly apportioned so that each person’s vote counts equally in determining the outcome of elections.
Historically, the Court’s determination of when a constitutionally protected right to vote existed has been narrow and restrictive. The Constitution originally contained very little regarding the right to vote. Existing references appear to leave primary responsibility for questions of suffrage to the states. For instance, Article I, section 2, provides for popular election of a House of Representatives. However, it is the states that determine who can vote in those elections. Before 1960, with rare exceptions, the Court viewed the right to vote as a political question for state legislatures rather than a legal right protected by the Constitution. This view persisted even in the light of such explicit constitutional pronouncements as the Fifteenth Amendment. Therefore, the states exercised primary dominion over suffrage through the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century
Before the Civil War (1861-1865), questions regarding the right to vote rarely came before the Court. That changed after passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in 1868 and 1870 respectively and because of the women’s suffrage movement. In the Slaughterhouse Cases
Reese and Cruikshank involved convictions under the 1870 Enforcement Act, enabling legislation intended to implement the Fifteenth Amendment. In Reese, state election officials were found guilty after refusing to accept the vote of an African American. In Cruikshank, a mob was convicted in the killings of more than one hundred African American would-be voters. The Court reversed the convictions in both cases. The premise behind the Court’s rulings was that the Constitution, even as amended by the Fifteenth Amendment, did not give anyone the right to vote. That amendment simply meant that the government may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or previous servitude in determining who can vote. However, the determination of who can vote remained with the states.
These decisions were consistent with the restrictive view of the right to vote expressed by the Court earlier in Minor v. Happersett
The view of the Court in cases such as Minor, Reese, and Cruikshank becomes clearer when contrasted with Ex parte Yarbrough
The Court’s decisions on the right to vote in the post-Reconstruction era through the twentieth century should be read in the context of minority rights. After Reconstruction
After Reconstruction, throughout much of the United States but particularly in the South, states enacted a variety of laws often referred to as Jim Crow laws. These laws appeared benign on face but in application, they discriminated against minorities. For example, some states required otherwise eligible voters to pass a literacy test before they could cast their ballots. This practice was considered tangentially in Williams v. Mississippi
Another invidious scheme involved the use of a grandfather clause
Giles v. Harris
Similarly, in Breedlove v. Suttles
In Guinn v. United States
In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act
The Supreme Court and Individual Rights by Joan Biskupic and Elder Witt (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1997) provides an excellent introductory treatment of the right of political participation. The Law of Democracy Legal Structure of the Political Process (New York: Foundation Press, 1998) by Samuel Issacharoff, Pamela S. Karlan, and Richard H. Pildes examines the procedural components of democracy in the particularized context of the United States, primarily from a legalistic perspective. Daniel Hays Lowenstein’s Election Law (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1995) uses a traditional casebook approach to analyze how the Supreme Court has addressed questions concerning electoral structures and processes. Bernard Schwartz’s A History of the Supreme Court (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) presents a chronological view of the workings of the Court placed in its broader political and historical context, a context particularly important to understanding the evolution of the right to vote. The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981), edited by Paul Kleppner, is a collection of essays on the political and historical development of the electoral structure in the United States. J. Morgan Kousser’s The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974) and Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) provide an uncommonly insightful analysis of the right to vote in the South. The first volume covers the Reconstruction era; the second considers the post-World War II years.
Cruikshank, United States v.
Guinn v. United States
Minor v. Happersett
Reese, United States v.
Representation, fairness of
Reynolds v. Sims
Voting Rights Act of 1965
Yarbrough, Ex parte