In 1965, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, Section 2 of the VRA, as originally adopted in 1965, closely tracked the language of the Fifteenth Amendment and prohibited voting practices that denied or abridged the right to vote on account of race or color. But in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in City of Mobile v. Bolden complicated the parallel relationship between Section 2 and the Fifteenth Amendment by imposing an intent standard on vote dilution claims brought under the Fifteenth Amendment. Since Section 2 and the Fifteenth Amendment were treated as coextensive, the Court also imposed the intent requirement on Section 2 claims. In response to the Mobile decision, Congress amended Section 2 and instituted a discriminatory effects test. An unfortunate consequence of the Section 2 amendment, however, was that it created a profound divergence between the statutory and constitutional standards for vote dilution claims. Congress established a private cause of action under Section 2 that would extend the Fifteenth Amendment’s reach. In doing so, Section 2’s broader effects standard rendered the Fifteenth Amendment futile.
The disappearance of the Fifteenth Amendment in modern voting rights jurisprudence has proven particularly problematic in vote dilution cases that arise today. Rather than honoring the Fifteenth Amendment’s robust protections of minority voting rights, the Court has relied heavily on narrow equal protection principles that often produce absurd results. Using the Court’s most recent voting rights decision, Shelby County v. Holder, as a framework, this Comment explores the Fifteenth Amendment’s role (or lack thereof) in the modern landscape of vote dilution claims. This Comment further advocates for a restoration of the Fifteenth Amendment in future voting rights cases because the Court’s current reliance on equal protection principles compromises the VRA’s original vision and purpose.