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Voting Rights

State Powers

The lion's share of the legal debate surrounding voting rights in America involved determining the extent to which states had the power to establish voting qualifications. The founders decided to leave the issue of voting qualifications to the discretion of the states; however, the federal government eventually retracted these powers when it became clear that the states would not treat the matter equitably. Even after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 which prohibited the discrimination of voting rights on the basis of race, the South managed to find ways to suppress African American enfranchisement. One of the most effective strategies employed by the Southern states to perpetuate racial discrimination at the ballot box was the all-white primary. Here, whites managed to exclude African Americans from voting in primaries based on the argument that the Fifteenth Amendment applied only to general elections. The primary, they argued, was a function of a private organization which did not have to justify the inclusion or exclusion of certain people. In fact, the practice was upheld in the courts in 1921 in Newberry v. United States where it was decided that primary elections were the private functions of political parties and therefore did not prohibit African Americans from participating in general elections.

In order to understand the ramifications of this decision it must also be understood that up until the late twentieth century Southern politics was dominated by the Democratic Party. Although the Democratic Party was a strong advocate of civil rights during the 1960s, it was the Republican Party that initiated the movement to abolish slavery, a movement to which the Democratic Party in the South was not at all sympathetic. The domination of the Democratic machine in Southern politics meant that there was little realistic opportunity for a candidate who supported equal rights for African Americans to be elected in a general election. The important elections in the South were the primaries.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesVoting Rights - Voting In A Democracy, State Powers, Discriminatory Practices, Courts Try To Strike Back, Representation