Voting Rights Act
Public Law Number:
Enacted - Signed by the President
Once the president signs a bill, it becomes a law.
An act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other purposes
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Other names for this bill...
This bill often is referred to as the VRA (acronym for Voting Rights Act).
What is the purpose of the Voting Rights Act?
As its formal name implies, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was written to prevent violations of the Constitution's 15th Amendment, which states 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.
These rights existed, of course, since the amendment was ratified in 1870. Yet for nearly 100 years since its ratification, minorities in certain states and congressional districts were systematically denied that right through various means such as intimidation, "literacy" tests, and poll taxes.
Sections 4 and 5 - The heart of the Voting Rights Act
The heart of the act is contained in two of its sections - Section 4 and Section 5.
Lists the criteria used to determine if a state or political subdivision has demonstrated voter discrimination.
Requires any state or political subdivision that has demonstrated voter discrimination (according to the criteria in Section 4) to have any changes to its voting laws approved by the federal government before those changes could take affect. This is referred to as "pre-clearance".
The pre-clearance requirement was to last for five years.
What determines voter discrimination?
Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act states that a state (or political subdivision) was considered to have used discriminatory voting practices if any of the following occurred...
States covered under these criteria were...
What has the voting rights act accomplished?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is considered by many to be one of the must successful laws ever enacted. Within its first year alone, more than a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered.
This chart demonstrates the long-term effect of the law - comparing voter registration rates in affected states just before it was enacted to 2004 registration rates. The data was compiled from Congressional reports and cited in the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby County v Holder.
1970: the VRA was extended for 5 years
In 1970 the pre-clearance requirement was renewed for another 5 years.
The criteria to determine if voting discrimination had taken place was updated to use the 1968 presidential election as its reference date.
Added to the list of districts requiring pre-clearance were parts of...
In other words, these districts had engaged in discriminatory practices during the prior years.
Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, and Wyoming have since been removed from the list.
1975: extension added protections for non-English speakers
In 1975 the pre-clearance requirement was extended by 7 years - using the 1972 presidential election for reference this time.
This extension also added protection for "language minority groups", including American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives, Spanish heritage. Election information and ballots needed to be provided in those languages spoken by more than five percent of eligible voters in a state or district.
Added to the list of states and districts requiring pre-clearance were...
1980: Supreme Court weakens Voting Rights Act
In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled that - in order for an election procedure to violate the Voting Rights Act - it must be proven that the procedure was intended to be discriminatory. (City of Mobile v Bolden).
1982: the law is extended 25 years and Bolden is reversed
In 1982 the pre-clearance requirement was extended for another 25 years.
The law also was expanded to allow someone who is blind, disabled, or illiterate to be assisted by someone they choose.
Congress also overturned the 1980 Supreme Court ruling in City of Mobile v Bolden, making it clear that it is unnecessary to prove a discriminatory intent when challenging certain registration and voting practices. The new law stipulated that any voting practice that has the effect of discriminating against minority voters is a violation of the Voting Rights Act - regardless of intent.
1983: Race cannot be primary factor in determining congressional districts
After the 1990 census North Carolina gained a representative in Congress - causing the state to remap its congressional districts.
North Carolina was subject to pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act, and the Justice Department rejected its redistricting proposal because it gave the state only one district (out of 12) where blacks would be in the majority. The Justice Department approved the state's second attempt - which created two black-majority districts.
The redistricting resulted in the first blacks elected to Congress from North Carolina in the 20th century. Note: To give you an idea of how recent in the nation's history these events were, one of those elected in 1992 - Mel Watt - still represents the state's 12th district as of this writing in 2013.
One of these new districts, however, was very oddly shaped. In one section it followed Interstate 85, swelling out into neighborhoods that were predominately black.
A group of five white residents sued, claiming that using race as a criteria for creating districts violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 1993 that the shape of the district was such that it could only be viewed as an effort to segregate races for the purpose of voting.
"...the Court concluded that taking account of race to include blacks was no less constitutionally suspect than using race to exclude them," wrote Daniel P. Tokaji in a paper for Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.
Only two of the five white residents who filed the suit actually lived in the affected district - showing that the decision made it possible for a white voter to challenge a congressional district by merely alleging that race was a factor. They did not not need to demonstrate the practices would harm them
After a series of re-challenges, the Court essentially reversed its 1993 decision (Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote), ruling North Carolina's gerrymandered districts were created as much for the political advantage of Democrats as for racial reasons - and therefore was constitutional.
Although the meaning of the original Shaw ruling - that it is unconstitutional to base congressional districts primarily on racial considerations - remains in effect, this final ruling has made it extremely difficult to enforce.
2003: Pre-clearance restrictions eased
After the 2000 census, redistricting in Georgia resulted in a dilution of congressional districts with a large black majority. The federal government denied Georgia's request for pre-clearance of the new district map.
In 2003 the Supreme Court overturned the rejection in a 5-4 decision, stating that the change could be consistent with the Voting Rights Act if the overall political influence of minority voters is not diminished - even if the change reduces their ability to elect candidates of their choice.
1970: Congress extended the VRA for 25 years
Congress extended the pre-clearance requirement for an additional 25 years - to expire in 2031
2013: Pre-clearance criteria ruled unconstitutional
In June 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the criteria used to determine which jurisdictions (due to previous discrimination) required pre-clearance of election changes was outdated. Those districts that previously required pre-clearnance now were free to change their election practices at-will.
The court did not invalidate the process of pre-clearance itself, meaning that Congress would be able to come up with new criteria.
For more, read the Lobby99 report.
Read more about voting rights
For a more in-depth look at how voting rights have been systematically denied to minorities up to recent times, read this report from Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts - who wrote the majority opinion in the 2013 ruling that made pre-clearance unenforceable - has worked to weaken the Voting Rights Act ever since he worked in the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan. For more, read this MSNBC story.