[Constitution of the United States of America:  Analysis, and Interpretation - 1992 Edition ]
[Amendments to the Constitution]
[Fifteenth Amendment - Rights of Citizens to Vote]
[From the U.S. Government Printing Office, www.gpo.gov]

[[Page 1937]]

                           FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT


                        RIGHT OF CITIZENS TO VOTE



        Abolition of Suffrage Qualifications on Basis of Race.....  1939
        Adoption and Judicial Enforcement.........................  1939
                Adoption..........................................  1939
                The Judicial View of the Amendment................  1940
                Grandfather Clauses...............................  1940
                The White Primary.................................  1941
                Literacy Tests....................................  1942
                Racial Gerrymandering.............................  1942
        Congressional Enforcement.................................  1943
                State Action......................................  1944
                Federal Remedial Legislation......................  1946

[[Page 1939]]

                           FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT
                        RIGHT OF CITIZENS TO VOTE


  Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall 
not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on 
account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
  Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by 
appropriate legislation.


      Adoption and Judicial Enforcement

        Adoption.--The final decision of Congress not to include 
anything relating to the right to vote in the Fourteenth Amendment, 
aside from the provisions of Sec. 2,\1\ left the issue of African 
American suffrage solely with the States, and Northern States were 
generally as loath as Southern to grant the ballot to African Americans, 
both the newly-freed and those who had never been slaves.\2\ But in the 
second session of the 39th Congress, the right to vote was extended to 
African Americans by statute in the District of Columbia and the 
territories, and the seceded States as a condition of readmission had to 
guarantee African American suffrage.\3\ Following the election of 
President Grant, the ``lame duck'' third session of the Fortieth 
Congress sent the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the States for 
ratification. The struggle was intense because Congress was divided into 
roughly three factions: those who opposed any federal constitutional 
guarantee of African American suffrage, those who wanted to go beyond a 
limited guarantee and enact universal male suffrage, including abolition 
of all educational and property-holding tests, and those who wanted or 
who were willing to settle for an amendment merely proscribing racial 
qualifications in deter

[[Page 1940]]
mining who could vote under any other standards the States wished to 
have.\4\ The later group ultimately prevailed.

        \1\Supra, pp. 1926-27. Of course, the equal protection clause 
has been extensively utilized by the Court to protect the right to vote. 
Supra, pp. 1892-1911.
        \2\W. Gillette, The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of 
the Fifteenth Amendment 25-28 (1965).
        \3\Id. at 29-31; ch. 6, 14 Stat. 375 (1866) (District of 
Columbia); ch. 15, 14 Stat. 379 (1867) (territories); ch. 36, 14 Stat. 
391 (1867) (admission of Nebraska to statehood upon condition of 
guaranteeing against racial qualifications in voting); ch. 153, 14 Stat. 
428 (1867) (First Reconstruction Act).
        \4\Gillette, supra n., at 46-78. The congressional debate is 
conveniently collected in 1 B. Schwartz, Statutory History of the United 
States--Civil Rights 372 (1971).

        The Judicial View of the Amendment.--In its initial appraisals 
of this Amendment, the Supreme Court appeared disposed to emphasize only 
its purely negative aspects. ``The Fifteenth Amendment,'' it announced, 
did ``not confer the right . . . [to vote] upon any one,'' but merely 
``invested the citizens of the United States with a new constitutional 
right which is . . . exemption from discrimination in the exercise of 
the elective franchise on account of race, color, or previous condition 
of servitude.''\5\ But in subsequent cases, the Court, conceding ``that 
this article'' has originally been construed as giving ``no affirmative 
right to the colored man to vote'' and as having been ``designed 
primarily to prevent discrimination against him,'' professed to be able 
``to see that under some circumstances it may operate as the immediate 
source of a right to vote. In all cases where the former slave-holding 
States had not removed from their Constitutions the words `white man' as 
a qualification for voting, this provision did, in effect, confer on him 
the right to vote, because . . . it annulled the discriminating word 
white, and this left him in the enjoyment of the same right as white 
persons. And such would be the effect of any future constitutional 
provision of a State which would give the right of voting exclusively to 
white people. . . .''\6\

        \5\United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 217-18 (1876); United 
States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 566 (1876).
        \6\Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 665 (1884); Guinn v. United 
States 238 U.S. 347, 363 (1915). A state constitutional provision 
limiting the right of suffrage to whites was automatically nullified by 
ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370 

        Grandfather Clauses.--Until quite recently, the history of the 
Fifteenth Amendment has been largely a record of belated judicial 
condemnation of various state efforts to disenfranchise African 
Americans either overtly through statutory enactment or covertly through 
inequitable administration of electoral laws and toleration of 
discriminatory membership practices of political parties. Of several 
devices which have been voided, one of the first to be held 
unconstitutional was the ``grandfather clause.'' Beginning in 1895, 
several States enacted temporary laws whereby persons who had been 
voters, or descendants of those who had been voters, on January 1, 1867, 
could be registered notwithstanding their inability to meet any literacy 
requirement. Unable because of the date to avail themselves of the 
exemption, African Americans were disabled to

[[Page 1941]]
vote on grounds of illiteracy or through discriminatory administration 
of literacy tests, while illiterate whites were permited to register 
without taking any tests. With the achievement of the intended result, 
most States permitted their laws to lapse, but Oklahoma's grandfather 
clause had been enacted as a permanent amendment to the state 
constitution. A unanimous Court condemned the device as recreating and 
perpetuating ``the very conditions which the [Fifteenth] Amendment was 
intended to destroy.''\7\

        \7\Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915).

        The Court did not experience any difficulty in voiding a 
subsequent Oklahoma statute of 1916 which provided that all persons, 
except those who voted in 1914, who were qualified to vote in 1916 but 
who failed to register between April 30 and May 11, 1916, with some 
exceptions for sick and absent persons who were given an additional 
brief period to register, should be perpetually disenfranchised. The 
Fifteenth Amendment, Justice Frankfurter declared for the Court, 
nullified ``sophisticated as well as simple-minded modes of 
discrimination. It hits onerous procedural requirements which 
effectively handicap exercise of the franchise by the colored race 
although the abstract right to vote may remain unrestricted as to 
race.''\8\ The impermissible effect of the statute, said the Court, was 
automatically to continue as permanent voters, without their being 
obliged to register again, all white persons who were on registration 
lists in 1914 by virtue of the previously invalidated grandfather 
clause, whereas African Americans, prevented from registering by that 
clause, had been afforded only a 20-day registration opportunity to 
avoid permanent disenfranchisement.

        \8\Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268, 275 (1939).

        The White Primary.--Indecision was displayed by the Court, 
however, when it was called upon to deal with the exclusion of African 
Americans from participation in primary elections.\9\ Prior to its 
becoming convinced that primary contests were in fact elections to which 
federal constitutional guarantees applied,\10\ the Court had relied upon 
the equal protection clause to strike down the Texas White Primary 
Law\11\ and a subsequent Texas statute which contributed to a like 
exclusion by limiting voting in primary elections to members of state 
political parties as determined by the central committees thereof.\12\ 
When exclusion of African Americans was thereafter perpetuated by 
political parties not acting in obedience to any statutory command, this 
discrimination was for a time

[[Page 1942]]
viewed as not constituting state action and therefore as not prohibited 
by either the Fourteenth or the Fifteenth Amendments.\13\ This holding 
was reversed nine years later when the Court declared that where the 
selection of candidates for public office is entrusted by statute to 
political parties, a political party in making its selection at a 
primary election is a state agency, and hence it may not under the 
Fifteenth Amendment exclude African Americans from such elections.\14\ 
An effort by South Carolina to escape the effects of this ruling by 
repealing all statutory provisions regulating primary elections and 
political organizations conducting them was nullified by a lower federal 
court with no doctrinal difficulty,\15\ but the Supreme Court, although 
nearly unanimous on the result, was unable to come to a majority 
agreement with regard to the exclusion of African Americans by the 
Jaybird Association, a county-wide organization which, independently of 
state laws and the use of state election machinery or funds, nearly 
monopolized access to Democratic nomination for local offices. The 
exclusionary policy was held unconstitutional but there was no opinion 
of the Court.\16\

        \9\See also supra, p. 120.
        \10\United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299 (1941); Smith v. 
Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944).
        \11\Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927).
        \12\Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73 (1932).
        \13\Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935).
        \14\Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944).
        \15\Rice v. Elmore, 165 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1947), cert. denied, 
333 U.S. 875 (1948); see also Baskin v. Brown, 174 F.2d 391 (4th Cir. 
        \16\Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953). For an analysis of the 
opinions, see infra, p. 1945.

        Literacy Tests.--At an early date the Court held that literacy 
tests which are drafted so as to apply alike to all applicants for the 
voting franchise would be deemed to be fair on their face and in the 
absence of proof of discriminatory enforcement could not be said to deny 
equal protection.\17\ But an Alabama constitutional amendment the 
legislative history of which disclosed that both its object and its 
intended administration were to disenfranchise African Americans was 
condemned as violative of the Fifteenth Amendment.\18\

        \17\Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898); cf. Lassiter 
v. Northampton County Bd. of Elections, 360 U.S. 45 (1960).
        \18\Davis v. Schnell, 81 F. Supp. 872 (M.D. Ala. 1949), aff'd 
336 U.S. 933 (1949). On congressional action on literacy tests, see 
infra, pp. 1946-47.

        Racial Gerrymandering.--The Court's series of decisions 
interpreting the equal protection clause as requiring the apportionment 
and districting of state legislatures solely on a population basis\19\ 
had its beginning in Gomillion v. Lightfoot,\20\ in which the Court 
found a Fifteenth Amendment violation in the redrawing of a municipal 
boundary line into a 28-sided figure which excluded from the city all 
but four or five of 400 African Americans but no

[[Page 1943]]
whites, and which thereby continued white domination of municipal 
elections. Subsequent decisions, particularly concerning the validity of 
multi-member districting and alleged dilution of minority voting power, 
were decided under the equal protection clause,\21\ and in City of 
Mobile v. Bolden,\22\ in the course of a considerably divided decision 
with respect to the requirement of discriminatory motivation in 
Fifteenth Amendment cases,\23\ a plurality of the Court sought to 
restrict the Fifteenth Amendment to cases in which there is official 
denial or abridgment of the right to register and vote, and to exclude 
indirect dilution claims.\24\ Congressional amendment of Sec. 2 of the 
Voting Rights Act may obviate the further development of constitutional 
jurisprudence in this area, however.\25\

        \19\Supra, pp. 1902-11.
        \20\364 U.S. 339 (1960). See also Wright v. Rockefeller, 376 
U.S. 52 (1964).
        \21\E.g., Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124 (1971); White v. 
Regester, 412 U.S. 755 (1973).
        \22\446 U.S. 55 (1980).
        \23\On the issue of motivation versus impact under the equal 
protection clause, see supra, pp. 1815-20. On the plurality's view, see 
446 U.S. at 61-65. Justice White appears clearly to agree that 
purposeful discrimination is a necessary component of equal protection 
clause violation, and may have agreed as well that the same requirement 
applies under the Fifteenth Amendment. Id. at 94-103. Only Justice 
Marshall unambiguously adhered to the view that discriminatory effect is 
sufficient. Id. at 125. See also Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130, 
146-49 & nn.3-5 (1976) (dissenting).
        \24\Id. at 65. At least three Justices disagreed with this view 
and would apply the Fifteenth Amendment to vote dilution claims. Id. at 
84 n.3 (Justice Stevens concurring), 102 (Justice White dissenting), 
125-35 (Justice Marshall dissenting). The issue was reserved in Rogers 
v. Lodge, 458 U.S. 613, 619 n.6 (1982).
        \25\See Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1982, Pub. L. 97-205, 96 
Stat. 131, amending 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973. The Supreme Court interpreted 
the 1982 amendments to section 2 in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 
(1986), determining that Congress had effectively overruled the City of 
Mobile intent standard in returning to a ``totality of the 
circumstances'' results test.
      Congressional Enforcement

        Although the Fifteenth Amendment is ``self-executing,''\26\ the 
Court early emphasized that the right granted to be free from racial 
discrimination ``should be kept free and pure by congressional enactment 
whenever that is necessary.''\27\ Following ratification of the 
Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, Congress passed the Enforcement Act of 
1870,\28\ which had started out as a bill to prohibit state officers 
from restricting suffrage on racial grounds and providing criminal 
penalties and ended up as a comprehensive measure aimed as well at 
private action designed to interfere with the rights guaranteed under 
the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amend

[[Page 1944]]
ments. Insofar as this legislation reached private action, it was 
largely nullified by the Supreme Court and the provisions aimed at 
official action proved ineffectual and much of it was later 
repealed.\29\ More recent legislation has been much more far-reaching in 
this respect and has been sustained.

        \26\Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 362-63 (1915).
        \27\Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 665 (1884).
        \28\16 Stat. 140. Debate on the Act is collected in 1 B. 
Schwartz, Statutory History of the United States--Civil Rights 454 
(1971). See also The Enforcement Act of 1871, ch.99, 16 Stat. 433.
        \29\Ch. 25 28 Stat 36 (1894); ch. 321 35 Stat. 1153 (1909). See 
R. Carr, Federal Protection of Civil Rights: Quest for a Sword 35-55 
(1947), for a brief history of the enactment and repeal of the statutes. 
The surviving statutes of this period are 18 U.S.C. Sec. Sec. 241-42, 
and 42 U.S.C. Sec. Sec. 1971(a), 1983, and 1985(3).

        State Action.--Like Sec. 1 of the Fourteenth, Sec. 1 of the 
Fifteenth Amendment prohibits official denial of the rights therein 
guaranteed, giving rise to the ``state action'' doctrine.\30\ 
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court in two early cases seemed to be of the 
opinion that Congress could protect the rights against private 
deprivation, on the theory that Congress impliedly had power to protect 
the enjoyment of every right conferred by the Constitution against 
deprivation from any source.\31\ But in James v. Bowman\32\ the Court 
held that legislation based on the Fifteenth Amendment which attempted 
to prohibit private as well as official interference with the right to 
vote on racial grounds was unconstitutional, and that interpretation was 
not questioned until 1941.\33\ But the Court's interpretation of the 
``state action'' requirement in cases brought under Sec. 1 of the 
Fifteenth Amendment narrowed the requirement there and opened the 
possibility, when these decisions are considered with cases decided 
under the Fourteenth Amendment, that

[[Page 1945]]
Congress is not limited to legislation directed to official 

        \30\Supra, pp. 1786-1802. ``The State . . . must mean not 
private citizens but those clothed with the authority and influence 
which official position affords. The application of the prohibition of 
the Fifteenth Amendment to `any State' is translated by legal jargon to 
read `State Action.' This phrase gives rise to a false direction in that 
it implies some impressive machinery or deliberative conduct normally 
associated with what orators call a sovereign state. The vital 
requirement is State responsibility--that somewhere, somehow, to some 
extent, there be an infusion of conduct by officials, panoplied with 
State power, into any scheme by which colored citizens are denied voting 
rights merely because they are colored.'' Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461, 
473 (1953) (Justice Frankfurter concurring).
        \31\The idea was fully spelled out in Justice Bradley's opinion 
on circuit in United States v. Cruikshank, 25 Fed. Cas. 707, 712, 713 
(No. 14,897) (C.C.D. La. 1874). The Supreme Court's decision in United 
States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 555-56 (1876), and United States v. 
Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 217-18 (1876), may be read to support the 
contention. Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651 (1884), involved a federal 
election and the assertion of congressional power to reach private 
interference with the right to vote in federal elections, but the Court 
went further to broadly state the power of Congress to protect the 
citizen in the exercise of rights conferred by the Constitution, among 
which was the right to be free from discrimination in voting protected 
by the Fifteenth Amendment. Id. at 665-66.
        \32\190 U.S. 127 (1903), holding unconstitutional Rev. Stat. 
Sec. 5507, which was Sec. 5 of the Enforcement Act of 1870, ch. 114, 16 
Stat. 140.
        \33\E.g., United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 315 (1941); 
United States v. Williams, 341 U.S. 70, 77 (1951).
        \34\Supra, pp. 1933-36.

        Thus, in Smith v. Allwright,\35\ the exclusion of African 
Americans from political parties without the compulsion or sanction of 
state law was nonetheless held to violate the Fifteenth Amendment 
because political parties were so regulated otherwise as to be in effect 
agents of the State and thus subject to the Fifteenth Amendment; 
additionally, in one passage the Court suggested that the failure of the 
State to prevent the racial exclusion might be the act implicating the 
Amendment.\36\ Then, in Terry v. Adams,\37\ the political organization 
was not regulated by the State at all and selected its candidates for 
the Democratic primary election by its own processes; all eligible white 
voters in the jurisdiction were members of the organization but African 
Americans were excluded. Nevertheless, the Court held that this 
exclusion violated the Fifteenth Amendment although no rationale was 
agreed upon by a majority of the Justices. Four of them thought the case 
simply indistinguishable from Smith v. Allwright and thus did not deal 
with the central issue.\38\ Justice Frankfurter thought the 
participation of local elected officials in the processes of the 
organization was sufficient to implicate state action.\39\ Three 
Justices thought that when a purportedly private organization is 
permitted by the State to assume the functions normally performed by an 
agency of the State, then that association is subject to federal 
constitutional restrictions,\40\ but this opinion also, in citing 
selected passages of Yarbrough and Reese and Justice Bradley's circuit 
opinion in Cruikshank, appeared to be suggesting that the state action 
requirement is not indispensable.\41\ The 1957 Civil Rights Act\42\ 
included a provision

[[Page 1946]]
prohibiting private action with intent to intimidate or coerce persons 
in respect of voting in federal elections and authorized the Attorney 
General to seek injunctive relief against such private actions 
regardless of the character of the election. The 1965 Voting Rights 
Act\43\ went further and prohibited and penalized private actions to 
intimidate voters in federal, state, or local elections. The Supreme 
Court has yet to consider the constitutionality of these sections.

        \35\321 U.S. 649 (1944).
        \36\``The United States is a constitutional democracy. Its 
organic law grants to all citizens a right to participate in the choice 
of elected officials without restrictions by any State because of race. 
This grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not to be 
nullified by a State through casting its electoral process in a form 
which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination 
in the election. Constitutional rights would be of little value if they 
could be thus indirectly denied.'' Id. at 664.
        \37\345 U.S. 461 (1953).
        \38\Id. at 477 (Justices Clark, Reed, and Jackson, and Chief 
Justice Vinson).
        \39\Id. at 470.
        \40\Id. at 462, 468-69, 470 (Justices Black, Douglas, and 
        \41\Id. at 466-68. Justice Minton understood Justice Black's 
opinion to do away with the state action requirement. Id. at 485 
        \42\71 Stat. 637, 42 U.S.C. Sec. Sec. 1971(b), 1971(c). In a 
suit to enjoin state officials from violating 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1971(a), 
derived from Rev. Stat. 2004, applying to all elections, the defendants 
challenged the constitutionality of the law because it applied to 
private action as well as state. The Court held that inasmuch as the 
statute could constitutionally be applied to the defendants it would not 
hear their contention that as applied to others it would be void. United 
States v. Raines, 362 U.S. 17 (1960), disapproving the approach of 
United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 (1876).
        \43\Pub. L. No. 89-110, Sec. Sec. 11-12, 79 Stat. 443, 42 U.S.C. 
Sec. Sec. 1973i, 1973j.

        Federal Remedial Legislation.--The history of federal remedial 
legislation is of modern vintage.\44\ The 1957 Civil Rights Act\45\ 
authorized the Attorney General of the United States to seek injunctive 
relief to prevent interference with the voting rights of citizens. The 
1960 Civil Rights Act\46\ expanded on this authorization by permitting 
the Attorney General to seek a court finding of ``pattern or practice'' 
of discrimination in any particular jurisdiction and authorizing upon 
the entering of such a finding the registration of all qualified persons 
in the jurisdiction of the race discriminated against by court-appointed 
referees. This authorization moved the vindication of voting rights 
beyond a case-by-case process. Further amendments were added in 
1964.\47\ Finally, in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 \48\ Congress went 
substantially beyond what it had done before. It provided that if the 
Attorney General determined that any State or political subdivision 
maintained on November 1, 1964, any ``test or device''\49\ and that less 
than 50 per cent of the

[[Page 1947]]
voting age population in that jurisdiction was registered on November 1, 
1964, or voted in the 1964 presidential election, such tests or devices 
were to be suspended for five years and no person should be denied the 
right to vote on the basis of such a test or device. A State could 
reinstitute such a test or device within the prescribed period only by 
establishing in a three-judge court in the District of Columbia that the 
test or device did not have a discriminatory intent or effect and the 
covered jurisdiction could only change its election laws in that period 
by obtaining the approval of the Attorney General or a three-judge court 
in the District of Columbia. The Act also provided for the appointment 
of federal examiners who could register persons meeting 
nondiscriminatory state qualifications who then must be permitted to 

        \44\The 1871 Act, ch. 99, 16 Stat. 433, provided for a detailed 
federal supervision of the electoral process, from registration to the 
certification of returns. It was repealed in 1894. ch. 25, 28 Stat. 36. 
In Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475 (1903), the Court, in an opinion by 
Justice Holmes, refused to order the registration of 6,000 African 
Americans who alleged that they were being wrongly denied the franchise, 
the Court observing that no judicial order would do them any good in the 
absence of judicial supervision of the actual voting, which it was not 
prepared to do, and suggesting that the petitioners apply to Congress or 
the President for relief.
        \45\Pub. L. No. 85-315, 71 Stat. 634. See United States v. 
Raines, 362 U.S. 17 (1960); United States v. Alabama, 192 F. Supp. 677 
(M.D. Ala. 1961), aff'd, 304 F.2d 583 (5th Cir.), aff'd, 371 U.S. 37 
        \46\Pub. L. No. 86-449, 74 Stat. 86.
        \47\Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241.
        \48\Pub. L. No. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973 et 
        \49\The phrase ``test or device'' was defined as any requirement 
for (1) demonstrating the ability to read, write, understand, or 
interpret any matter, (2) demonstrating any educational achievement or 
knowledge, (3) demonstrating good moral character, (4) proving 
qualifications by vouching of registered voters. Aimed primarily at 
literacy tests, South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 333-34 
(1966), the Act was considerably broadened through the Court's 
interpretation of Sec. 5, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973c, which require the 
approval either of the Attorney General or a three-judge court in the 
District of Columbia before a State could put into effect any new voting 
qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or 
procedure with respect to voting, to include such changes as 
apportionment and districting, adoption of at-large instead of district 
elections, candidate qualification regulations, provisions for 
assistance of illiterate voters, movement of polling places, adoption of 
appointive instead of elective positions, annexations, and public 
employer restrictions upon employees running for elective office. Allen 
v. State Board of Elections, 393 U.S. 544 (1969); Perkins v. Matthews, 
400 U.S. 379 (1971); Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526 (1973); 
Dougherty County Bd. of Educ. v. White, 439 U.S. 32 (1978). See also 
United States v. Board of Comm'rs of Sheffield, 435 U.S. 110 (1978) 
(pre-coverage provisions apply to all entities having power over any 
aspect of voting, not just ``political subdivisions'' as defined in 

        These laws the Supreme Court upheld and expansively applied. In 
United States v. Mississippi\50\ the Court held that the Attorney 
General was properly authorized to sue for preventive relief to protect 
the right of citizens to vote, that the State could be sued, and that 
various election officers were defendants and the suit could not be 
defeated by the resignation of various officers. A lower federal court's 
judgment voiding an ``interpretation test,'' which required an applicant 
to interpret a section of the state or federal constitution to the 
satisfaction of the voting registrar was approved in Louisiana v. United 
States.\51\ The test was bad because it vested vast discretion in the 
registrars to determine qualifications while imposing no definite and 
objective standards for administration of the tests, a system which the 
evidence showed had been administered so as to disqualify African 
Americans and qualify whites. The Court also affirmed the lower court's 
decree invalidating imposition of a new objective test for new voters 
unless the State required all present voters to reregister so that all 
voters were tested by the same standards.

        \50\380 U.S. 128 (1965).
        \51\380 U.S. 145 (1965). See also United States v. Thomas, 362 
U.S. 58 (1960); United States v. Alabama, 362 U.S. 602 (1960); Alabama 
v. United States, 371 U.S. 37 (1962).

        But it was in upholding the constitutionality of the 1965 Act 
that the Court sketched in the outlines of a broad power in Con

[[Page 1948]]
gress to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.\52\ While Sec. 1 authorized 
the courts to strike down state statutes and procedures which denied the 
vote on the basis of race, the Court held, Sec. 2 authorized Congress to 
go beyond proscribing certain discriminatory statutes and practices to 
``enforcing'' the guarantee by any rational means at its disposal. The 
standard was the same as that employed under the ``necessary and 
proper'' clause supporting other congressional legislation. Congress was 
therefore justified in deciding that certain areas of the Nation were 
the primary locations of voting discrimination and in directing its 
remedial legislation to those areas. Congress chose a rational formula 
based on the existence of voting tests which could be used to 
discriminate and based on low registration or voting rates demonstrating 
the likelihood that the tests had been so used; it could properly 
suspend for a period all literacy tests in the affected areas upon 
findings that they had been administered discriminatorily and that 
illiterate whites had been registered while both literate and illiterate 
African Americans had not been; it could require the States to seek 
federal permission to reinstitute old tests or to institute new ones; 
and it could provide for federal examiners to register qualified voters. 
The nearly unanimous decision affords Congress a vast amount of 
discretion to enact measures designed to enforce the Amendment through 
broad affirmative prescriptions rather than through proscriptions of 
specific practices.\53\ Subsequent decisions confirm the reach of this 
power. In one case, the Court held that evidence of discrimination in 
the educational opportunities available to black children in the county 
as compared to that available to white children during the period in 
which most of the adults who were now potential voters were in school 
precluded a North Carolina county from reinstituting a literacy test 
because of the past educational discrimination.\54\ And when Congress in 
1970 \55\ suspended for a five-year period literacy tests throughout the 
Nation, the Court unanimously sustained the action as a valid measure to 
enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.\56\

        \52\South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966).
        \53\Justice Black dissented from that portion of the decision 
which upheld the requirement that before a State could change its voting 
laws it must seek approval of the Attorney General or a federal court. 
Id. at 355.
        \54\Gaston County v. United States, 395 U.S. 285 (1969).
        \55\84 Stat. 315, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973aa.
        \56\Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112, 131-34, 144-47, 216-17, 
231-36, 282-84 (1970).

        Moreover, in City of Rome v. United States,\57\ the Court read 
even more broadly the scope of Congress' remedial powers under Sec. 2 of 
the Fifteenth Amendment, paralleling the similar reasoning under Sec. 5 
of the Fourteenth. The jurisdiction sought to escape from

[[Page 1949]]
coverage of the Voting Rights Act by showing that it had not utilized 
any discriminatory practices within the prescribed period. The lower 
court had found that the City had engaged in practices without any 
discriminatory motive but that the practices had had a discriminatory 
impact. The City thus argued that, inasmuch as the Fifteenth Amendment 
reached only purposeful discrimination, the Act's proscription of effect 
as well as purpose went beyond Congress' power. The Court held, however, 
that even if discriminatory intent was a prerequisite to finding a 
violation of Sec. 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment by the courts,\58\ 
Congress had the authority to go beyond that and proscribe electoral 
devices that had the effect of discriminating. The section, like Sec. 5 
of the Fourteenth Amendment, was in effect a ``necessary and proper 
clause'' enabling Congress to enact enforcement legislation which was 
rationally related to the end sought and which was not prohibited by it 
but was consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, even 
though the actual practice outlawed or restricted would not be 
judicially found to violate the Fifteenth Amendment. In so acting, 
Congress could prohibit state action that perpetuated the effect of past 
discrimination, or that, because of the existence of past purposeful 
discrimination, raised a risk of purposeful discrimination that might 
not lend itself to judicial invalidation. ``It is clear, then, that 
under Sec. 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment Congress may prohibit practices 
that in and of themselves do not violate Sec. 1 of the Amendment, so 
long as the prohibitions attacking racial discrimination in voting are 
`appropriate,' as that term is defined in McCulloch v. Maryland and Ex 
parte Virginia . . . . Congress could rationally have concluded that, 
because electoral changes by jurisdictions with a demonstrable history 
of intentional racial discrimination in voting create the risk of 
purposeful discrimination, it was proper to prohibit changes that have a 
discriminatory impact.\59\ City of Rome is highly significant for the 
validity of congressional additions to the Voting Rights Act. In 1975 
and 1982, the Act was extended and revised to increase its 
effectiveness,\60\ and the 1982 Amendments

[[Page 1950]]
were addressed to revitalizing Sec. 2 of the Act, which, unlike 
Sec. Sec. 4 and 5, that remain limited to a number of jurisdictions, 
applies nationwide.\61\ As enacted in 1965, Sec. 2 largely tracked the 
language of the Fifteenth Amendment itself. In City of Mobile v. 
Bolden,\62\ a majority of the Court agreed that the Fifteenth Amendment 
and Sec. 2 of the Act were coextensive, but the Justices did not agree 
on the meaning thus to be ascribed to the statute. A plurality did 
believe that because the constitutional provision reached only 
purposeful discrimination, Sec. 2 was similarly limited. It was one 
major purpose of Congress in 1982 to set aside this possible 
interpretation and provide that any electoral practice ``which results 
in a denial or abridgement'' of the right to vote on account of race or 
color will violate the Act.\63\ The subsequent Court adoption, or re-
adoption, of the standards by which it can be determined when a practice 
denies or abridges the right to vote, though couched in terms of proving 
intent or motivation, may well bring the constitutional and statutory 
standards into such close agreement that the constitutional question 
will not arise.\64\

        \57\446 U.S. 156 (1980).
        \58\Cf. City of Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980).
        \59\City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156, 177 (1980). 
Justices Powell, Rehnquist, and Stewart dissented. Id. at 193, 206.
        \60\The 1975 amendments, Pub. L. 94-73, 89 Stat. 400, extended 
the Act for seven years, expanded it to include those areas having 
minorities distinguished by their language, i.e., ``persons who are 
American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives or of Spanish 
heritage,'' 207, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973 1f(c)(3), in which certain 
statistical tests are met and requiring election materials be provided 
in the language(s) of the group(s), and enlarged to require bilingual 
elections if more than five percent of the voting age citizens of a 
political subdivision are members of a single language minority group 
whose illiteracy rate is higher than the national rate. The 1982 
amendments, Pub. L. 97-205, 96 Stat. 131, in addition to the Sec. 2 
revision, alter after August 5, 1984, the provisions by which a covered 
jurisdiction may take itself from under the Act by proving to the 
special court in the District of Columbia that it has complied with the 
Act for the previous ten years and that it has taken positive steps both 
to encourage minority political participation and to remove structural 
barriers to minority electoral influence. Moreover, the amendments 
change the result in Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130 (1976), in 
which the Court had held that a covered jurisdiction was precluded from 
altering a voting practice only if the change would lead to a 
retrogression in the position of racial minorities; even if the change 
was only a little ameliorative of existing discrimination, the 
jurisdiction could implement it. The 1982 amendments provide that the 
change may not be approved if it would ``perpetuate voting 
discrimination,'' in effect applying the new Sec. 2 results test to 
preclearance procedures. S. Rep. No. 417, 97th Congress, 2d Sess. 12 
(1982); H.R. Rep. No. 227, 97th Congress, 1st Sess. 28 (1981).
        \61\Private parties may bring suit to challenge electoral 
practices under Sec. 2. It provided, before the 1982 amendments, that 
``[n]o voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, 
practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or 
political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the 
United States to vote on account of race or color.''
        \62\446 U.S. 55 (1980). See id. at 60-61 (Justices Stewart, 
Powell, Rehnquist, and Chief Justice Burger), and id. at 105 n.2 
(Justice Marshall dissenting).
        \63\In Sec. 3 of the 1982 amendments, Sec. 2 of the Act was 
amended by the insertion of the quoted phrase and the addition of a 
section setting out a nonexclusive list of factors making up a totality 
of circumstances test by which a violation of Sec. 2 would be 
determined. 96 Stat. 134, amending 42 U.S. Sec. 1973. Without any 
discussion of the Fifteenth Amendment, the Court in Thornburg v. 
Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986), interpreted and applied the ``totality of 
the circumstances'' test in the context of multimember districting.
        \64\See Rogers v. Lodge, 458 U.S. 613 (1982).