Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649; 64 S. Ct. 757; 88 L. Ed. 987 (1944)

Facts—Lonnie E. Smith, an African American citizen of Texas, sued for damages for the refusal of election and associate election judges to give him a ballot to vote in the primary election of July 27, 1940, for the nomination of Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and other state offices. This refusal was based solely on race and color. He fulfilled all other requirements for voting. Election officials were acting under a state of Texas Democratic Party convention resolution that limited membership in the Democratic Party to white persons.

Question—Does the action of the Democratic convention limiting the right to vote in primary elections constitute state action?


ReasonsJ. Reed (8–1). The privilege of membership in a political party is of no concern to the state. However, when the privilege of membership in the party is an essential qualification for voting in the primary and selecting candidates for a general election, the action of the party is the action of the state. “When primaries become a part of the machinery for choosing officials, state and national, as they have here, the same tests to determine the character of discrimination or abridgement should be applied to the primary as are applied to the general election. If the state requires a certain electoral procedure, prescribes a general election ballot made up of party nominees so chosen and limits the choice of the electorate in general elections for state officers, practically speaking, to those whose names appear on such a ballot, it endorses, adopts and enforces the discrimination against Negroes practiced by a party entrusted by Texas law with the determination of the qualifications of participants in the primary. This is state action within the meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment.”

In dissent, J. Roberts emphasized what he believed to be the Court’s cavalier treatment of earlier precedents.

Note—In Newberry v. United States, 256 U.S. 232 (1921) the Court said that Congress could not regulate primaries; in Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927) that the state Democratic Party could not exclude African Americans from voting; and in Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73 (1932) that the state Democratic Party committee could not discriminate. In Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935), however, the Court held a state convention to be a private organization and its discrimination licit. When United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299 (1941) overruled Grovey, saying that a primary was an integral part of the election process, it was a short step for Smith v. Allwright to declare the party’s discrimination to be state action.

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