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Voting Rights Act

Bill Number: S-1564

Public Law Number: 89-110

Enacted - Signed by the President

Once the president signs a bill, it becomes a law.

Full title...
An act to enforce the 15th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other purposes

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Bill Text
Vote (House)
Vote (Senate)
More Information

Related Issues...
Voting Rights

Related News...
Supreme Court upholds AZ voting restrictions
Supreme Court nullifies key part of Voting Rights Act

Related Court Cases
(2014) Shelby County v. Holder

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.

Section 2: Broad protections against new laws

This section provides protections against any changes to voting laws that would result in harm to their right to vote based on their race or color.

Its protection is broad, stating that any voting law in which members of a particular race have less opportunity to vote than other members of the electorate is a violation.

Sections 4 & 5: Preclearance

The heart of the act is contained in two of its sections - Section 4 and Section 5.

Section 4
Lists the criteria used to determine if a state or political subdivision has demonstrated voter discrimination.

Section 5
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 preclearance.

The preclearance 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...

o In the previous five years it used some sort of criteria (referred to as a "test or device") other than the standard eligibility requirements. These included things like tests for literacy or moral character.

o Fewer than half of the people old enough to vote were registered on Nov. 1, 1964

o Less than half of the people old enough to vote voted in the 1964 presidential election

States covered under these criteria were...

o Alabama
o Alaska
o Georgia
o Louisiana
o Mississippi
o South Carolina
o Virginia
o Parts of Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Carolina

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...

o Arizona
o California
o Connecticut
o Idaho
o Maine
o Massachusetts
o New Hampshire
o New York
o Wyoming

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...

o Arizona
o Texas
o Parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

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 NewsInFive article.

2021: Supreme Court ruling waters down Section 2

The Supreme Court ruled that Section 2 is not absolute, and restrictions imposed by a state can be evaluated against other ways the state makes available to cast votes.

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.

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