June 21, 1915 – The Supreme Court Decides Guinn v. United States

The 1870 ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution barred each state from denying the right to vote on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In response, several Southern states established constitutional provisions designed to disenfranchise African-American voters without explicitly violating the Fifteenth Amendment.

One of these techniques was the “grandfather clause.” As an online law and legal reference library explains:

There were many varieties of this kind of law, which said that people who had been voting before a certain date–or whose grandfathers had been voting before that date–did not have to register; they were simply allowed to vote. That way, registration rules could be made very complicated, or voter registration could be limited to a short, inconvenient time.”

BlackPast, an African American history site, details how developments in Oklahoma disenfranchised blacks:

Oklahoma’s original 1907 Constitution allowed men of all races to vote. Within one year of statehood, however, the legislature amended the original State Constitution to provide for a literacy test, e.g., the ability to read and write any section of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma. That provision exempted two classes of individuals and their descendants from the requirement:  1) male citizens who were born on or before January 1, 1866 were entitled to vote; and 2) male descendants of people who at that time resided in a foreign nation were also allowed to vote. This provision allowed white U.S. citizens, as well as European immigrants and their descendants, to cast ballots. The provision also stipulated that a lineal descendant of males in these categories shall not be denied the right to register and vote because of their inability to read and write.  The effect of the state constitutional provision was to prevent former male slaves and their descendants from voting since the vast majority of black males could not vote on January 1, 1866.”

An NPR article on Guinn v. U.S. notes that although African-Americans typically lacked the financial resources to file suit, the NAACP, founded in 1909, persuaded a U.S. attorney to challenge Oklahoma’s grandfather clause, which had been enacted in 1910.

In its unanimous opinion delivered by Chief Justice Edward Douglass White Jr. on June 21, 1915, the Supreme Court ruled in Guinn v. U.S. (238 U.S. 347, 1915) that Oklahoma’s grandfather clause – having been written in a way to serve “no rational purpose” other than to deny African American citizens the right to vote — violated the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The convictions of Oklahoma election officials Frank Guinn and J.J. Beal were thus upheld.

Justice Edward Douglass White

However, Justice White unfortunately added:

No time need be spent on the question of the validity of the literacy test, considered alone, since, as we have seen, its establishment was but the exercise by the State of a lawful power vested in it not subject to our supervision, and, indeed, its validity is admitted.”

Having received this “okay” from the court to come up with other ways to take away the vote from blacks, the Oklahoma Legislature met in special session to grandfather in the grandfather clause. The new law said those who had been registered in 1914 — whites under the old system — were automatically registered to vote, while African-Americans could only register between April 30 and May 11, 1916, or forever be disenfranchised.

The Supreme Court struck down this law as well, but not until 23 years later in Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939). U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, writing for the court, observed that the new 1916 law “was obviously directed towards the consequences of the decision in Guinn v. United States, supra.”

Frankfurter thought there was “no escape from the conclusion that the means chosen as substitutes for the invalidated ‘grandfather clause’ were themselves invalid under the Fifteenth Amendment. They operated unfairly against the very class on whose behalf the protection of the Constitution was here successfully invoked.”

Justice Felix Frankfurter

Voter suppression has continued of course. As the Brennan Center, which chronicles efforts to suppress the vote, argues, over the last 20 years, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box — imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, gerrymandering, and purging voter rolls. These efforts received a boost when the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.

With the surge of Democratic voters in the 2020 elections, Republican legislatures around the country have stepped up their repressive measures. The Brennan Center reports that overall, lawmakers introduced at least 389 restrictive bills in 48 states in the 2021 legislative sessions. A detailed 2022 update is here.

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