The 15th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution was ratified 150 years ago, on Feb. 3, 1870. It prohibits denying or abridging the right to vote on the basis of race.
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.
The amendment guaranteed political equality for African-American men. (Women’s right to vote would come 50 years later with the 19th Amendment.) That guarantee was soon honored in the breach because of the collapse of Reconstruction in the South and the accession to power of white-supremacist state governments.
By the early 20th century, black voter registration in the South had fallen into the low single digits. The 15th Amendment was a dead letter in the South, and it would not be revived in a meaningful way until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Jesse Wegman points out that the 15th Amendment has a central flaw — and the flaw is language-based.
Its words were cast in the negative. It told the states what they could not do — “shall not be denied or abridged.” It did not tell people they had an affirmative right to vote.
And that wording has made a world of difference.
In places like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio, Republican politicians pass voter-ID laws, conduct voter-roll purges and push other measures that drive down turnout among people who lean Democratic — especially black, young and lower-income voters. In the absence of an explicit constitutional right to vote, laws like these are harder to strike down…
“There are still many, many people in this country who think the right to vote should be limited in one way or another,” [Eric Foner, author of “The Second Founding”] said. “Step back, and you’ve got the Electoral College, gerrymandering, all these ways people try to hold on to power by manipulating the right to vote.”
(Jesse Wegman, “Why Voting Discrimination Haunts America,” NYTimes, 2-7-20)
(c) 2020 JMN