92 U.S. 214 (1876), argued 13–14 Jan. 1875, decided 27 Mar. 1876 by vote of 8 to 1; Waite for the Court, Clifford concurring, Hunt in dissent. This was the Supreme Court's first voting rights case under the Fifteenth Amendment and the Enforcement Act of 1870. A Kentucky electoral official had refused to register an African-American's vote in a municipal election and was indicted under two sections of the 1870 act: section 2 required that administrative preliminaries to elections be conducted without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude; section 3 forbade wrongful refusal to register votes where a prerequisite step “required as aforesaid” had been omitted. The Court held that the Fifteenth Amendment did not confer the right of suffrage but prohibited exclusion on racial grounds. The justices invalidated the operative section 3 since it did not repeat the words about race, color, and servitude and thus exceeded the scope of the Fifteenth Amendment.
In this case involving local elections the Court, dominated by Lincoln and Grant Republicans, chose not to set an expansive, national stamp on the Constitution. Though the Court was willing to uphold the Enforcement Acts in cases involving federal elections, its cramped, technical treatment of state and local cases crippled the acts for practical purposes. This left southern states free to disfranchise African-Americans during the 1890s with literacy, character, and other tests that, while not based on race, were disproportionately exclusive of African-Americans.
Ward E. Y. Elliott