Voting & Elections Supreme Court Cases

Voting is critical to a healthy democracy. Drafted in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite this mandate, African-Americans often continued to face institutional barriers to voting, such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

Nearly a century later, Congress sought to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment guarantee through the Voting Rights Act. This law banned literacy tests and certain other tools of disenfranchisement. (The Twenty-Fourth Amendment had banned poll taxes in federal elections a few years earlier.) In addition, the Voting Rights Act imposed a specific requirement for jurisdictions with a pattern of voter suppression. No change in voting procedures could take effect in these jurisdictions until it was approved by federal authorities in a process known as preclearance.

The Supreme Court has steadily weakened the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, it struck down the formula used for preclearance, essentially wiping out this requirement. The Court also has narrowly interpreted the provision in the Voting Rights Act that echoes the language of the Fifteenth Amendment. Challenges to voting rules and procedures thus face an uphill battle.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving voting and elections, arranged from newest to oldest.

Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP (2024)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

The evidentiary force of an alternative map in a redistricting case, coupled with its easy availability, means that trial courts should draw an adverse inference from a plaintiff's failure to submit this map. The adverse inference may be dispositive in many, if not most, cases in which the plaintiff lacks direct evidence or some extraordinarily powerful circumstantial evidence.

Moore v. Harper (2023)

Author: John Roberts

The Elections Clause in Article I of the Constitution does not vest exclusive and independent authority in state legislatures to set the rules regarding federal elections.

Allen v. Milligan (2023)

Author: John Roberts

A district is not equally open as required by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act when minority voters (unlike their majority peers) face bloc voting along racial lines, arising against the backdrop of substantial racial discrimination within the state, that renders a minority vote unequal to a vote by a non-minority voter.

Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (2021)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

To the extent that minority and non-minority groups differ with respect to employment, wealth, and education, even neutral regulations may result in some predictable disparities in rates of voting and non-compliance with voting rules. But the mere fact that there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote.

Chiafalo v. Washington (2020)

Author: Elena Kagan

A state may enforce an elector's pledge to support their party's nominee (and the state voters' choice) for President.

Rucho v. Common Cause (2019)

Author: John Roberts

Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.

Abbott v. Perez (2018)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

In redistricting cases, the good faith of the state legislature must be presumed.

Cooper v. Harris (2017)

Author: Elena Kagan

A state may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason.

Evenwel v. Abbott (2016)

Author: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A state or locality may draw its legislative districts based on total population.

McCutcheon v. FEC (2014)

Author: John Roberts

Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption, but it may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.

Shelby County v. Holder (2013)

Author: John Roberts

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, and its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.

U.S. v. Reese (1876)

Author: Morrison R. Waite

The power of Congress to legislate on the subject of voting at state elections rests on the Fifteenth Amendment, and it can be exercised by providing a punishment only when the wrongful refusal to receive the vote of a qualified elector at such elections is because of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Minor v. Happersett (1875)

Author: Morrison R. Waite

A provision in a state constitution that confines the right of voting to male citizens of the United States is not a violation of the federal Constitution. In such a state, women have no right to vote.

Citizens United v. FEC (2010)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity. No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of non-profit or for-profit corporations.

Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2008)

Author: John Paul Stevens

Even rational restrictions on the right to vote are invidious if they are unrelated to voter qualifications, but even-handed restrictions protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process are permissible. A state law's burden on a political party, an individual voter, or a discrete class of voters must be justified by relevant and legitimate state interests sufficiently weighty to justify the limitation.

Bush v. Gore (2000)

Author: Per Curiam

The use of standardless manual recounts after a presidential election violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Miller v. Johnson (1995)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

In some exceptional cases, a reapportionment plan may be so highly irregular that, on its face, it rationally cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to segregate voters based on race. (However, when the district is not so bizarre, parties may rely on other evidence to establish race-based districting.)

Shaw v. Reno (1993)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

Redistricting legislation that is so bizarre on its face that it is unexplainable on grounds other than race demands the same close scrutiny as other state laws that classify citizens by race.

Thornburg v. Gingles (1986)

Author: William Brennan

The critical question in a claim under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is whether the use of a contested electoral practice or structure results in members of a protected group having less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.

Karcher v. Daggett (1983)

Author: William Brennan

Parties challenging apportionment legislation bear the burden of proving that population differences among districts could have been reduced or eliminated by a good-faith effort to draw districts of equal population. If the plaintiffs carry their burden, the state bears the burden of proving that each significant variance between districts was necessary to achieve a legitimate goal.

City of Mobile v. Bolden (1980)

Author: Potter Stewart

Racially discriminatory motivation is a necessary ingredient of a Fifteenth Amendment violation. The Amendment does not entail the right to have African-American candidates elected but prohibits only purposefully discriminatory denial or abridgment by government of the freedom to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Buckley v. Valeo (1976)

Author: Per Curiam

Restrictions on individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment. However, restrictions on independent expenditures in campaigns, limits on expenditures by candidates from their personal or family resources, and limits on total campaign expenditures violated the First Amendment. Also, any appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an “Officer of the United States” and must be appointed in the manner prescribed by the Appointments Clause.

Richardson v. Ramirez (1974)

Author: William Rehnquist

A state did not violate the Equal Protection Clause in disenfranchising convicted felons who have completed their sentences and paroles.

Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966)

Author: William O. Douglas

A state violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax.

South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966)

Author: Earl Warren

Congress, as against the reserved powers of the states, may use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial voting discrimination. The Fifteenth Amendment is self-executing and supersedes contrary exertions of state power. Its enforcement is not confined to judicial invalidation of racially discriminatory state statutes and procedures or to general legislative prohibitions against violations of the Amendment.

Reynolds v. Sims (1964)

Author: Earl Warren

The Equal Protection Clause requires substantially equal legislative representation for all citizens in a state, regardless of where they reside. Legislators represent people, rather than areas, and weighting votes differently according to where citizens happen to reside is discriminatory.

Wesberry v. Sanders (1964)

Author: Hugo Black

The constitutional requirement that representatives be chosen “by the people of the several states” means that, as nearly as is practicable, one person's vote in a congressional election must be worth as much as another person's vote.

Baker v. Carr (1962)

Author: William Brennan

Prominent on the surface of any case held to involve a political question is found a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department, a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it, the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for non-judicial discretion, the impossibility of a court's undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government, an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made, or the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question. More specifically, an equal protection challenge to a legislative apportionment is not a non-justiciable political question.

Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960)

Author: Felix Frankfurter

Even the broad power of a state to fix the boundaries of its municipalities is limited by the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbids a state to deprive any citizen of the right to vote because of their race.

Smith v. Allwright (1944)

Author: Stanley Reed

All citizens have a right to participate in the choice of elected officials, without restriction by any state because of race. This grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not to be nullified by a state through casting its electoral process in a form that permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election.

Newberry v. U.S. (1921)

Author: James Clark McReynolds

The power to control party primaries for designating candidates for the Senate is not within the grant of power to Congress to regulate the manner of holding elections.

Guinn & Beal v. U.S. (1915)

Author: Edward Douglass White

A provision in a state constitution recurring to conditions existing before the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, the continuance of which the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited, and making those conditions the test of the right to suffrage is void under the Fifteenth Amendment.

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