Voting Rights Act (Great Events from History: North American Series)
Article abstract: Prohibition of the denial of voting rights on the basis of race or color also protects language minorities.
Summary of Event
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which announced an end to slavery. After the Civil War, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which had an immediate impact on the national political body through the election of African Americans by the newly freed citizens. In 1870, the states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting the denial of voting rights on the basis of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude. Two enforcement acts, called the Ku Klux Klan Acts or Force Acts, were passed in 1870 and 1871 to give federal authorities extensive powers to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, respectively.
African American legislators were elected in every Southern state. In South Carolina, where African Americans were in the majority, the majority of legislators were African Americans. At the national level, twenty African Americans served in the House of Representatives and three served in the Senate between 1869 and 1899.
This brief experiment in participatory democracy was quickly aborted, however. State legislatures had the authority to determine the criteria governing the boundaries of voting districts and the qualifications required for citizens to vote....
(The entire section is 1340 words.)
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Voting Rights Act of 1965 (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.) prohibits the states and their political subdivisions from imposing voting qualifications or prerequisites to voting, or standards, practices, or procedures that deny or curtail the right of a U.S. citizen to vote because of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. A product of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT of the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act has proven to be an effective, but controversial, piece of legislation. The act was extended in 1970 and again in 1982, when its provisions were renewed for an additional twenty-five years.
In the early 1960s very few African Americans in the South were allowed to vote. Southern states used literacy tests and physical and economic coercion to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. The state legal system supported these practices, leaving African Americans and other minority groups with few options to challenge voting discrimination. CIVIL RIGHTS leaders organized public protests and voter registration drives, but met intense resistance from local authorities.
A 1965 march to Selma, Alabama, by Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. and other civil rights supporters to demand voting rights led to police violence and the murder of several marchers. The Selma violence galvanized voting rights supporters
(The entire section is 933 words.)
Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Major Acts of Congress)
William D. Araiza
Excerpt from the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Section 2: No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or ... procedure shall be imposed ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.
Section 5: Whenever a [covered] State ... shall enact ... any voting qualification ... differ ent from that in force ... on November 1, 1964, such State ... may institute an action ... for a declaratory judgment that such qualification ... does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of...denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color ... Provided ... that such qualification ... may be enforced ... if [it] has been submitted ... to the Attorney General and the Attorney General has not interposed an objection within sixty days.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) (P. L. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437) was designed to protect and ensure the right to vote that is guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, was enacted in the immediate post-Civil War period. Yet as late as the early 1960s the country witnessed systematic efforts to deny the right to vote to racial and ethnic minorities, especially blacks in the South. Southern politicians attempted to prevent blacks from voting by using a variety of devices, including literacy and good character tests that were easily manipulated by poll officials. As a result, blacks participated in voting and political activity in very low numbers in the areas where such devices were employed. The VRA was designed to eliminate the use of these devices as a means of preventing blacks from exercising their right to vote.
FEATURES OF THE ACT
The most important provisions of the VRA are contained in sections 2 and 5. Section 2 prohibits states from establishing voting qualifications or standards in a way that results in a denial of the right to vote on account of race. Section 5 requires states and other jurisdictions with a history of race discrimination in voting to obtain the approval of the United States Department of Justice before changing any law with regard to voting. This provision has become known as the "preclearance" provision because it requires states to obtain the clearance of the Justice Department before changing its voting laws.
The preclearance provision has a wide scope. It includes, for example, the redrawing of electoral districts that occurs after every national census (a population count conducted every ten years), voter qualification rules, and changes in government structure. (Such changes include the decision to change some offices from elective to appointive, or to change a city council from one in which one representative is elected from each district to one in which all representatives run city-wide.) All of these changes have the potential to weaken, or, in the words of the statute, "dilute" the strength of minority voting. To prevent such dilution, the statute requires Justice Department clearance before such changes can be put into effect. If a state concludes that the Justice Department's disapproval of a desired change is unwarranted, the matter is decided by a federal court. The Supreme Court may review these federal court decisions if it so chooses. In its review of several decisions, the Court has interpreted section 2 to prohibit a broad array of government conduct.
Sections 2 and 5 are similar, in that they both seek to combat government practices making it difficult for minorities either to vote or, more generally, to participate effectively in government. Section 5 differs from section 2, though, in that it puts the burden on state and local governments with a history of discrimination to obtain approval for any changes that might possibly have these effects. Section 2, which applies throughout the nation, does not include such a preclearance requirement.
Other important sections of the act forbid the use of literacy and good character tests to determine eligibility for voting and provide for federal officials to register voters and observe elections in certain circumstances.
The constitutional basis for the VRA is Congress' power under section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment. Section 1 of that Amendment states that "the right
CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO ADOPTION OF THE ACT
In the late 1950s and early 1960s leaders of the Civil Rights movement realized that race-based voting restrictions severely impeded the political, economic, and social progress of black Americans. Civil rights activists initiated voter registration drives and educational campaigns in the early 1960s to encourage greater black political participation. In the summer of 1964, for example, white college students traveled to the South to assist in voter registration and educational efforts, and civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) spearheaded similar drives. Some whites responded to these campaigns with violence, both against the civil rights leadership, the workers in the civil rights campaigns, and local blacks who expressed sympathy or support for them. This violence, and pressure from the civil rights community, prompted Congress to take action.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had become president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, made completion of his predecessor's civil rights agenda one of his top priorities and one of the foundations of his Great Society program. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the acknowledged leader of the Civil Rights movement, was also a major supporter of the VRA. The civil rights agenda was not limited to the VRA. It also included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provided broad guarantees against racial and other discrimination in private employment and federally sponsored activities, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited racial discrimination in the housing market.
The legislative debate leading to the act focused on the seriousness and breadth of states' deprivations of the right to vote. The debate also concerned the appropriateness of federal legislation overseeing states' conduct of their elections. Under the Constitution, the conduct of elections is a matter for state regulation. Opponents of the VRA argued that the VRA was an inappropriate federal interference in state affairs. On the other side, proponents noted that the right to vote was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and argued, ultimately successfully, that it was appropriate for the federal government to take steps to safeguard that right.
The debate on the VRA was heavily influenced by current events. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing by the mid-1960s. Southern opposition to that movement, in particular acts of violence and intimidation led both by private parties and by government officials, were national news. Pictures of police using dogs and water cannons on nonviolent protesters appeared prominently on national television, and reports of mob violence against civil rights activists appeared on the front pages of newspapers. All of this persuaded many Americans who had previously been uninformed or apathetic about civil rights issues that strong federal action was necessary.
IMPORTANT COURT INTERPRETATIONS
The constitutionality of the VRA was established in an important 1966 case, South Carolina v. Katzenbach. In that case the Supreme Court held that the VRA was an appropriate use by Congress of its power to "enforce" the Fifteenth Amendment. South Carolina is notable because it inaugurated a period during which the Supreme Court gave a more permissive interpretation to Congress' power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment. Also in 1966, the Court gave a similarly broad reading to Congress' power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment in Katzenbach v. Morgan.
Image Pop-UpMost of these African-American voters were able to vote for the first time after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Here, in Wilcox County, Alabama, voters line up in front a polling station at The Sugar Shack, a local general store, May 3, 1966
In other important cases the Supreme Court interpreted provisions of the VRA itself. For example, in Allen v. State Board of Elections (1969), the Court interpreted section 5's preclearance requirements to apply to any change that had the effect of diluting the voting strength of minorities, rather than merely to changes in laws dealing with the act of voting itself. Vote dilution occurs when a government entity, such as a city government, changes its structure in a way that reduces minority voting strength. In Perkins v. Matthews (1971), for example, the Court held that a city's annexations of surrounding areas had to be precleared under section 5. If the annexed area was primarily occupied by whites, then such annexations might dilute minority voting strength. The result would be a new, larger city with a larger percentage of whites than before, thus weakening minority political power.
Another important electoral practice involves redistricting. States redraw their legislative districts every ten years to take account of population changes reflected in the census. Depending on how those districts are drawn, minority voting strength might be diluted. For example, a black neighborhood might be split up into several districts rather than concentrated in one, with the result that in no one district would black voting power be decisive. In Georgia v. United States (1973), the Court held that state legislative redistricting would also have to be precleared. Today both state legislative and congressional district lines must be precleared in the states subject to section 5.
At other times, the Court has adopted narrower interpretations of the VRA. For example, in Mobile v. Bolden (1980), the Court held that section 2's prohibitions on voter qualification tests that are racially discriminatory included only those tests specifically motivated by a desire to discriminate on the basis of race. The VRA does not apply, the Court said, to those requirements that merely affect blacks and other minorities differently than they affect whites. Two years later, Congress amended the VRA to make clear that it intended to prohibit actions with discriminatory results, not just actions that were intentionally discriminatory.
The VRA was originally written to expire in five years. In 1970 Congress renewed the act for another five years, and in 1975 and subsequent years it was renewed again. Each time, Congress has renewed the act for only a limited period, with the idea that it would reconsider whether the federal intrusions on state electoral processes were still necessary, or even needed strengthening. In each case Congress decided to renew the act. In renewing the act in 1970, Congress indicated its approval of the broad interpretations the Supreme Court gave to the act in cases like Allen.
THE VRA AND EQUAL PROTECTION
In the 1990s the Justice Department's use of the VRA to prevent minority vote dilution came under attack in the Supreme Court. The Justice Department has sometimes insisted that compliance with section 5 requires maximizing minority voter strength. This in turn would require taking race significantly into account when states redraw their legislative and congressional districts. Some legal scholars and political leaders have claimed that the practice of placing voters in particular districts based on their race violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This clause prevents states from denying to individuals "the equal protection of the laws" and has long been understood as prohibiting government from classifying individuals on the basis of their race. In Shaw v. Reno (1993) and Miller v. Johnson (1995), the Court suggested that such use of race might violate the equal protection clause if race was the predominant motivating factor in the state's redistricting plan. The Court's suggestion raises questions about how stringently the VRA may be used in the districting context. So far, the Court has not squarely faced those questions.
Section 2 of the VRA has gone a long way toward ending the discriminatory use of voter qualifications tests. Before the VRA these tests were used to deprive blacks and other minorities of their rights to vote. Today it is rare, though still not unknown, for government officials to seek to deprive minority voters of their rights through obvious means such as voter qualification tests. Dilution claims, however, are far more common, given how broadly "voter dilution" is defined. In fact, this loose understanding of the term has the potential to affect almost any structural or electoral change a government may make.
Section 5 has also become extraordinarily important. Congressional district boundaries are redrawn every ten years to correspond with population changes as reflected in the census. In the states subject to section 5 of the VRA, the U.S. Justice Department heavily influences the redrawing of those lines, a practice normally performed by state legislatures. Under section 5, the Justice Department must approve those district lines before they can go into effect to become the new congressional and state legislative boundaries. Redistricting is a hotly contested political issue, because the shape of legislative districts influences how heavily Democratic or Republican the district will be. Thus Justice Department involvement in redistricting has often led to lengthy legal and political conflicts.
See also: CIVIL RIGHTS ACTS OF 1866, 1875, 1957, 1964; FAIR HOUSING ACT OF 1968; FORCE ACT OF 1871; KU KLUX KLAN ACT.
Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963965. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Garrow, David J. Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.
Thernstrom, Abigail. Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. A Citizen's Guide to the Voting Rights Act. Washington, DC: The Commission, 1984.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954965. New York: Viking, 1987.