Congressional Enforcement

SECTIONS 1 AND 2. 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 Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


Although the Fifteenth Amendment is “self-executing,”27 the Court early emphasized that the right granted to be free from racial discrimination “should be kept free and pure by congressional enactment whenever that is necessary.”28 Following ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, Congress passed the Enforcement Act of 1870,29 which had started out as a bill to prohibit state officers from restricting suffrage on racial grounds and providing criminal penalties and ended up as a comprehensive measure aimed as well at private action designed to interfere with the rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Insofar as this legislation reached private action, it was largely nullified by the Supreme Court and the provisions aimed at official action proved ineffectual and much of it was later repealed.30 More recent legislation has been much more far-reaching in this respect and has been sustained.

27 Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 362–63 (1915).

28 Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 665 (1884).

29 16 Stat. 140. Debate on the Act is collected in 1 B. Schwartz, Statutory History Of The United States: Civil Rights 454 (1971). See also The Enforcement Act of 1871, ch. 99, 16 Stat. 433.

30 Ch. 25, 28 Stat 36 (1894); ch. 321, 35 Stat. 1153 (1909). See R. Carr, Federal Protection Of Civil Rights: Quest For A Sword 35–55 (1947), for a brief history of the enactment and repeal of the statutes. The surviving statutes of this period are 18 U.S.C. §§ 241–42, and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971(a), 1983, and 1985(3).