A Series on the Constitutional Amendments: The Fifteenth

The scene at the signing of the US Constitution.

“A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”

-Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

The right to vote is one that many people take for granted today. There are campaigns to “Rock the Vote” and get as many people involved in the process of electing leaders as possible. This is absolutely the right thing to do; the more people that vote, the better our government will be at representing the people. Throughout history, the problem has been that only certain people were allowed to vote. It’s very important to remember that the practice of universal suffrage in regards to voting rights is a relatively modern concept; historically only those who owned land were allowed to vote.

In the United States, the right to vote was given to any young male who was of age, determined to be twenty-one per the Fourteenth Amendment as discussed previously. The right of women to vote is a subject for a later Amendment, but it warrants mentioning that it wasn’t enshrined into law that women couldn’t vote. The right to vote has many amendments throughout the United States’ history and they will be important in discussions later on.

The 15th Amendment was passed by Congress February 26, 1869 and ratified February 3, 1870. The text reads:

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

Essentially this law was an addition to the previous two amendments fully franchising former slaves as able to vote and be counted properly. This was met with a lot of resistance from Democratic southern states which had enacted black codes to restrict the rights of former slaves at a state level. In order to try and push the freedom legislation, the Republican congress used a lame duck session to introduce the legislation.

It’s important to note that many women’s suffrage groups were opposed to this amendment. They saw the issue as separate from the ability to vote for black Americans. Susan B Anthony was even quoted as saying, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” This split the suffrage movement away from the universal side to the individual women’s and black suffrage.

Several states ratified and in 1870 the Secretary of State acknowledged the passage of the  Amendment. It’s interesting to note here that New York ratified, rescinded its ratification and then ratified again within the span of 5 months.

There are really two Supreme Court cases worth noting that deal with the Fifteenth Amendment. First came United States v. Reese(1875) in which the state of Kentucky was sued for disallowing a black man to vote on basis of a polling tax. It’s important to note that it was not out of the ordinary to have polling taxes. What was out of the ordinary in this case was that the men collecting the taxes refused to allow the black man to pay. This cause no end of trouble and was eventually brought to the Supreme Court as a violation of the 15th Amendment.

The primary case here was a Kentucky law passed in 1870 that allowed certain exceptions for polling requirements should the man be refused the means to vote. Unfortunately the Supreme Court voted 8-1 against the law, essentially saying that it was too vague in its wording to have standing in the 15th Amendment. This is important because while they may be perceived to have gone against the rights of the black man, they were in reality protecting the Constitution from abuse. The language in the law was not specific enough and too broad to be able to be used to sue for such a thing and the Justices saw to it that this was clear in their ruling.

The second case regarding the fifteenth Amendment dealt with the infamous “grandfather clause”. After emancipation and the passage of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, many southern states passed laws to circumvent the Constitution. There were literacy tests that required the person voting to be able to read as well as what was known as the grandfather clause. If a voter couldn’t pass the literacy test, all that was required to vote was proof that your grandfather was able to vote before January 1, 1866. It’s important to remember here that the passage of the 14th Amendment which gave black men the vote nationwide wasn’t passed until 1868.

This law in particular was both clever and cruel. It disenfranchised the newly freed black population, while at the same time ensuring it wasn’t specific enough to warrant a lawsuit. The lawsuits did come, however, and in Guinn v. United States(1915) the supreme court struck down such laws finding them to be in violation of the 15th Amendment.

By all rights the fifteenth amendment (and later the nineteenth) should have been an open and shut amendment after the first several decades; and in fat, very few lawsuits have been made regarding it. The issue of suffrage has risen again in modern times, however, as a result of illegal immigrants and their role in society. The Constitution clearly states that citizens are the ones who get to vote in elections, and yet there have been found to be many thousands of illegal votes cast in elections nationwide. These range from the local to the federal level. While it’s agreed that this needs to be stopped, the question of how has sparked outrage amongst many.

A particularly contentious issue is that of Voter ID laws. This law simply states that you need an ID from the state that only a citizen is able to get. This includes a citizenship card from naturalization, driver’s license, passport etc. This makes a lot of sense as only citizens are allowed to vote. The hard core leftists, however, have made this non-issue a problem as they claim that it would be akin to poll taxes and grandfather clauses. They claim that since minorities can’t readily get these IDs due to being the lowest on the income scale then they won’t be able to vote. While their point bears some merit as Driver’s licenses and passports cost money to acquire, there is a simple solution to which they cannot object to.

Every state offers ID cards for that state in particular. They require the same citizen documentation that a Driver’s license does, except they are not a license to drive. While some states charge for the processing of these IDs others don’t. If a state passes a voter ID law, it can simultaneously pass a law making the state IDs free for all citizens. Furthermore, it can even go a step further an allow non-citizens the same IDs with a non-citizen tag on the card. It’s easy, simply and within the bounds of the Constitution.

Ultimately universal suffrage of American Citizens is something we can all agree on. The right to vote being taken away from felons as punishment is the only time a citizen who stays in the US loses their right to vote. Apart from that, the fifteenth Amendment removed yet another barrier to suffrage.


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