The Voting Rights Act: A Short Guide

vra signing

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. MLK and John Lewis can be seen behind him. Rosa Parks was also present.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has long been considered one of the most important pieces of legislation for civil rights. But its aims have been under increasing attack particularly in the past few years. In order to help protect voting rights going forward, it is important for us to understand the law and a bit about its history.

How did the Voting Rights Act come about?

After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment (which granted citizenship to former slaves and equal protection of laws) and 15th Amendment (which guaranteed the right to vote for male citizens*) were adopted between 1868 and 1870. However, in practice, the enforcement of these amendments for African-Americans was often nonexistent.

Fast forward to the 1960s when the civil rights movement was a huge force in America. Central to their goal of equality was securing the right to vote without barriers. Selma, Alabama had become the city where civil rights leaders were focusing their attention on voter registration efforts, as only 1-2% of African-Americans were registered.

To protest the discrimination and continued attacks they suffered for trying to register voters, the 50-mile Selma to Montgomery march was organized. The march was led by the future Congressman John Lewis and was nonviolent. When the peaceful protesters crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, the police attacked them violently, resulting in many injuries and the death of one protester, all of which was shown on TV.

Within days of the incident, called “Bloody Sunday,” President Lyndon B. Johnson went on television to implore Congress to take legislative action, saying “In our system, the first right and most vital of all our fights is the right to vote.” You can read the full address HERE and see a clip from that address in this video:

Congress did take up the issue immediately. The hearings that commenced laid bare the political reality that every time the Department of Justice would crack down on one case of voter suppression, another restriction would pop up elsewhere. Ultimately, they confirmed that the existing federal laws were not strong enough to make the states to enforce the 15th Amendment, and so drafted the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The Senate passed the VRA on May 26, 1965, the House passed it on July 9, and President Johnson signed it into law on August 6, surrounded by many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.  (At that time, there were only 6 African-American members of Congress. In the 116th Congress, there are 57.)

What does the VRA do?

Broadly, the Voting Rights Act made race-based restrictions on voting illegal, and gave citizens the ability to sue in federal court to stop them.

The law has provisions that apply to the entire country, such as banning the use of restrictive tactics such as literacy tests, not allowing any registration or voting restriction based on race, and making intimidation at the polls illegal. The law authorized the U.S. Attorney General to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. (While poll taxes had been made illegal for federal elections in 1964, they weren’t found unconstitutional for all elections until 1966.) The VRA also upheld the ability to enforce the 15th Amendment.

Section 4 of the VRA outlined a formula for determining which states and counties needed to get “preclearance” before enacting any new voting rules and laws. Based on that formula, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia fell under that requirement as did several counties in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Carolina. Later, other states and counties fell under the formula.

Section 5 outlined the process for preclearance. The advantage of the preclearance requirement was that instead of law enforcement reacting to new attempts at voter suppression (which was about as effective as whack-a-mole) and then trying to stop the new practice, the places covered by the formula couldn’t enact any without first getting the approval of the federal government.

Parts of the VRA were scheduled to expire after a few years, but subsequent Presidents and sessions of Congress have renewed or amended the VRA five times.

What effects has the VRA had?

The Voting Rights Act had an immediate effect. A few highlights:
✦ By the end of 1965, over 250,000 African-Americans had registered to vote.
✦ In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among blacks increased from 6% in 1964 to 59% in 1969.
✦ A majority of African-American residents became registered to vote in 9 of the 13 Southern states.

By the 1980s, the trends and effects became even more pronounced:
✦ In 1965, the proportion of white to black registration in the South ranged from 3:1 to 10:1 but by the late 1980s, those racial variations were largely gone.
✦ Between 1965 and 1985, African Americans elected as state legislators in the 11 former Confederate states increased from 3 to 176.
✦ Nationwide, the number of African American elected officials increased from 1,469 in 1970 to 4,912 in 1980.

Once the VRA had made many of the overt racial restrictions to the ballot illegal, the VRA continued to be an important tool to tackle systemic problems with voting. Over 80% of the preclearance objections made between the enactment of the VRA and the early 2000s dealt with the issue of vote dilution.

The devastating blow the VRA sustained in 2013

Shelby County, Alabama had sued to declare that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, but lost. They tried again but attacked the formula in Section 4 as unconstitutional based on the fact that it was based on old information and no longer valid. The case, Shelby County v. Holder went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS agreed with Shelby County and invalidated the formula in Section 4.

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Without a formula in Section 4, the preclearance requirement in Section 5 could no longer be enforced, and so in effect, the best tool civil rights and voting rights supporters had to eliminate voter suppression tactics disappeared.

SCOTUS’s ruling was very narrow: They invalidated the old formula in Section 4–they did not invalidate the entirety of Section 4. Consequently, various organizations, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, are continuing their fight to determine a new formula, so that the preclearance provision of the VRA can be enacted again.

In the meantime, without that key portion of the VRA, we need to all expect and fight against the increase in voter suppression tactics that are already flooding the states.

How you can protect voting rights

Protecting voting rights require both fighting against new types of voter suppression that sprout up and pushing on our state and federal legislators to propose and enact laws to protect voting rights.

Here at PoliticalCharge, I cover voting rights news and write about specific ways we can advance voting rights. Subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss any posts. Also, if you become aware of new attacks on voting rights, I encourage you to leave me a comment so I can address it in a future blog post.

In the meantime, here are 5 organizations that actively fight for voting rights. Check out their voting rights efforts for ways you can help advocate with them:
Brennan Center for Justice
NAACP Legal Defense Fund

ACLU: Voting Rights
Fair Elections Center
Campaign Legal Center
Common Cause

* The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1919, secured the right to vote for women in America. 

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