Supreme Court Decision
Grovey v. Townsend
Grovey is a fairly straightforward case defending the use of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to force states to protect clearly constitutional rights -- in this case the right to vote assured by the Fifteenth Amendment -- while refusing to use it in private intervention.
Originally the Constitution allowed much leeway to the states in determining the right to vote, stating simply that voter qualifications in each state shall be equal to those required for the most numerous branch of the state legislature.
Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 changed that, by requiring states not to discriminate on the basis of "race, color or previous condition of servitude" in mandating voter qualifications. (Though it still theoretically left them loopholes such as literacy tests which could substantively reduce the black vote.)
When the state of Texas passed a 1923 law prohibiting the participation of blacks in the Democratic primary, the case was tested in Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and the statute found unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. The state then authorized the party's executive board to deny blacks the vote in the primaries. Again, the Supreme Court overruled, in Nixon v. Condon (1932), because the state was still actively involved in violating rights guaranteed through the Fourteenth.
Before Condon was decided, the Texas party took steps on its own, purportedly without state prompting, to limit membership to whites. Refused a ballot for the 1932 primary, one Grovey, a black man, sued.
In this case the Court ruled that the exclusion of blacks by the party was not a state action, but one undertaken by an organization comprised of voluntary members acting in a private capacity. Writing for the Court, Justice Owen Roberts acknowledged that primaries are heavily regulated by the state but, absent specific state involvement, could not concede that the party's actions were unconstitutional.
This case is clearly touchy simply because it involves a right so basic to liberty as voting for one's representation, and an outlook so pernicious as mass discrimination based solely upon skin color. In addition, primaries are so closely involved with the general concept and operation of democratic government at all levels that it's hard to separate them from state action.
Nonetheless, while the Grovey Court may have sidestepped these issues, their analysis of the operation of the Fourteenth Amendment is, in our opinion, correct. The framers of the Amendment made it quite clear that it was not intended to affect the franchise, a right still largely reserved to the states, nor operate on private entities.
In Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Court reversed Grovey on the basis that primaries are an integral part of the election process, and therefore subject to the constraints of the Fifteenth Amendment just as state and federal elections would be. This was a cleaner decision which avoided muddling the Fourteenth.
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Other decisions pertaining to Voting Rights:
Baker v. Carr [369 U.S. 186 (1962)] Warren Court
Gray v. Sanders [372 U.S. 368 (1963)] Warren Court
Minor v. Happersett [88 U.S. 162 (1875)] Waite Court
Reynolds v. Sims [377 U.S. 533 (1964)] Warren Court
Smith v. Allwright [321 U.S. 649 (1944)] Stone Court
South Carolina v. Katzenbach [383 U.S. 301 (1966)] Warren Court
United States v. Cruikshank [92 U.S. 542 (1876)] Waite Court