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Voting Rights

Discriminatory Practices

The state that fought most vigorously to preserve the white primary was Texas. The state legislature of Texas invited legal objection to the practice when it adopted a statute in 1923 which explicitly prohibited African Americans from participating in Democratic primary elections. With the help of the NAACP, L.A. Nixon filed suit on the grounds that the statute violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In Nixon v. Herndon (1927) the Supreme Court supported his claim. However, the issue of whether primary elections were a private affair which justified the use of the white primary in Newberry was not addressed. Nixon was decided on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment in that the state statute in question had violated Nixon's equal protection under the law. Thus, in order for Texas to continue the practice they merely needed to change the wording of the state statute. The state legislators of Texas therefore changed the statute to read that the Democratic party of Texas had the power to determine its own primary voting qualifications. Nixon filed suit again in Nixon v. Condon (1932) challenging the deprivation of his right to vote in primaries arguing that it violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court ruled that because the state legislature of Texas was endorsing a discriminatory practice by making the Democratic party its representative, Nixon's Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated.

However, as is the case in many societies, discriminatory practices do not go down easily. Proponents of the white primary believed they could still hide behind the Newberry judgement on the basis that the Democratic Party is a private organization and could prevent African Americans from participating by passing its own resolution apart from the state legislature. This practice was challenged in Grovey v. Townsend (1935) but the Supreme Court could find no constitutional violation. This was a major defeat for civil rights advocates. There seemed to be no way to put an end to the white primary until a Louisiana commissioner named Classic was charged with changing the votes in a primary election. In United States v. Classic (1941) Classic disputed the charge on the grounds that the federal government had no power to regulate primary elections. The Court ruled against Classic arguing that the primary had become an integral part of the election process. This ruling finally cracked the foundation of the white primary by tying the practice to the overall legitimacy of general elections. Then in the landmark case Smith v. Allwright (1944) the Court formally prohibited the all-white primary. In an 8-1 decision Justice Reed included in his opinion the clarification that voting in primary elections "is a right secured by the Constitution" (Smith). Although this finally closed the door on the all-white primary it by no means put an end to discrimination against voting rights.

Another instrument used to discourage African Americans from voting was the literacy test. Literacy or "understanding" tests were designed "in theory" to ensure that those who voted were politically aware. In practice, however, the intent was clearly of a malevolent nature. In Louisiana for example, only African Americans were subjected to "understanding" tests because of a "grandfather clause" in the Louisiana Constitution. The clause stated that those voters who were eligible to vote prior to 1 January 1967 were exempt from having to meet registration requirements such as understanding tests. In other words, the grandfather clause essentially meant that if your grandfather was white you did not have to take these tests. The nature of the test was subjective; individuals were asked to interpret a section of the United States or Louisiana Constitution and were granted or denied registration on the basis of their response. So rigorous were the standards for passing that in some cases African Americans with professional or graduate degrees were denied registration. Ultimately, in Louisiana v. United States (1965) the constitutionality of these tests were called into question. In a 9-0 ruling Justice Black made a rather blunt observation regarding the design of the "understanding" test. "This is not a test but a trap, sufficient to stop even the most brilliant man on his way to the voting booth" (Louisiana).

Despite rulings such as this the Court's efforts to put an end to discrimination against African American voters were not very effective. Those who wished to preserve the preponderance of the white voting class in the South had yet other formal and informal means at their disposal. In an effort to enforce the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act targeted areas of the country that had a history of discriminatory practices at the voting booths, authorizing federal supervision of the voting procedures in states where African American participation was suspiciously low. The constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act was immediately challenged in a suit led by South Carolina and supported by a number of other Southern states in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966). The Court reviewed the case under its original jurisdiction authority because it involved parties from different states. In an 8-1 decision the Court ruled that the Fifteenth Amendment granted Congress the power to take "appropriate" measures to ensure that voting rights on the basis of race were not abridged. Chief Justice Earl Warren declared that the Voting Rights Act was not inconsistent with the authority granted to Congress in the Constitution.

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