Guinn v. United States struck down the "grandfather clause" in Oklahoma's Voter Registration Act of 1910 because the clause discriminated against blacks and, therefore, violated the Fifteenth Amendment. The statute required voters to pass a reading test. However, the law exempted all those who were entitled to vote on January 1, 1866, just after the Civil War ended (and before the approval in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights for all male citizens, regardless of race), as well as their descendants. The law allowed those whose "grandfathers" were entitled to vote in 1866 to register without passing a literacy test.
Uneven application of the law to blacks became an immediate issue. Local voting registration officials interpreted the Voter Registration Act to mean that they could flatly refuse to administer literacy tests to blacks or could impose unreasonable ones. In one instance officials rejected a college graduate even though there was not "the slightest room for doubt as to whether" he was entitled to vote. In 1915 the U.S. government, therefore, prosecuted the officials for criminal conspiracy to deny voting rights to black Oklahomans.
In the case of Guinn v. United States (1915), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the convictions. Justice Edward White went on to strike down the grandfather clause. He saw the Oklahoma law for what it was--a bald attempt to disfranchise blacks. Justice White wrote that the act "inherently brings" discrimination based on race "into existence since it is based purely on a period of time before the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment and makes that period the controlling and dominant test of the right of suffrage." Guinn v. United States (1915) was hailed in black newspapers as an important step towards insuring basic fairness in voting rights.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Guinn v. United States, 228 F. 103, 109 (8th Cir. 1915). Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 355 (1915). Pamela S. Karlan, "The Rights to Vote: Some Pessimism about Formalism," Texas Law Review 71 (June 1993). Randall Kennedy, "Race Relations Law and the Tradition of Celebration: the Case of Professor Schmidt," Columbia Law Review 86 (December 1986).
Alfred L. Brophy
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