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The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Arizona law last week that would have criminalized the delivery of other people’s early ballots. In its decision, the 11-judge panel mentioned the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution 19 times, reaching back 150 years to halt what’s perceived as modern-day voter suppression.  

The lasting power of the 15th Amendment, which awarded African Americans the right to vote, resonates today in courtrooms across America. But Civil War scholars and voting rights advocates warn that the amendment should serve as a cautionary tale: Challenges to voting rights today, from photo ID requirements to registration restrictions in some states, echo those that have plagued the 15th Amendment for more than a century. 

On Monday, America celebrates the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, that won women the right to vote, and the 55th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which cemented voting rights for Black citizens – all in a presidential election year.

“It’s a remarkable accomplishment given that slavery was such a dominant institution before the Civil War,” Columbia University history professor and author Eric Foner said of the 15th Amendment. “But the history of the 15th Amendment also shows rights can never be taken for granted: Things can be achieved and things can be taken away.”

Alabama residents stand in line outside the U.S. Supreme Court to attend oral arguments as the high court considered Shelby County v. Holder on Feb. 27.

The 15th Amendment was the last of three Constitutional amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and the 14th Amendment granted African Americans citizenship and equal treatment under the law.

Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party knew they needed to enshrine voting rights in law and, after much debate in Congress, drafted the 15th Amendment, declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”


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