Laws Protecting Americans' Right to Vote

Four Laws with One Goal

Protestors in New Orleans calling for protection of voting rights for returning Katrina victims
New Orleans Protest Calls for Protection of Voting Rights of Returning Katrina Victims. Sean Gardner / Getty Images

No American who is qualified to vote should ever be denied the right and opportunity to do so. That seems so simple. So basic. How can "government by the people" work if certain groups of "the people" are not allowed to vote? Unfortunately, in our nation's history, some people have been, either intentionally or unintentionally, denied their right to vote. Today, four federal laws, all enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice, work in concert to ensure that all Americans are allowed to register to vote and enjoy an equal opportunity to cast a ballot on election day.

Preventing Racial Discrimination in Voting

For many years some states enforced laws clearly intended to prevent minority citizens from voting. Laws requiring voters to pass reading or "intelligence" tests, or pay a poll-tax denied the right to vote -- the most basic right in our form of democracy -- to untold thousands of citizens until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act protects every American against racial discrimination in voting. It also ensures the right to vote to people for whom English is a second language. The Voting Rights Act applies to elections for any political office or ballot issue held anywhere in the nation. Most recently, the federal courts have used the Voting Rights Act to end practices amounting to racial discrimination in the way some states elected their legislative bodies, and chose their election judges and other polling place officials. Still, the Voting Rights Act is not bulletproof and has faced court challenges.

Voter Photo ID Laws

Twelve states now have laws requiring voters to show some form of photo identification in order to vote, with about 13 more considering similar laws. The federal courts are currently struggling to decide whether some or all of these laws violate the Voting Rights Act.

More states moved to adopt photo ID voting laws in 2013, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act did not allow the U.S. Department of Justice to automatically apply federal oversight of new election laws in states with histories of racial discrimination.

While supporters of photo voter ID laws argue that they help prevent voter fraud, critics like the American Civil Liberties Union, cite studies showing that up to 11% of Americans lack an acceptable form of photo ID.

Persons most likely to not have acceptable photo ID include minorities, elderly and disabled persons, and financially disadvantaged persons.

State photo voter ID laws come in two forms: strict and non-strict.

In strict photo ID law states, voters without an accepted form photo ID – driver’s license, state ID, passport, etc. -- are not allowed to cast a valid ballot. Instead, they are allowed to fill out “provisional” ballots, which remain uncounted until they are able to produce an accepted ID. If the voter does not produce a an accepted ID within a short period of time after the election, their ballot is never counted.

In non-strict photo ID law states, voters without an accepted form photo ID are allowed to use alternative types of validation, such as signing an affidavit swearing to their identification or having a poll worker or election official vouch for them.

In August 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that a Texas strict voter ID law discriminated against black and Hispanic voters and thus violated the Voting Rights Act. One of the strictest in the nation, the law required voters to produce a Texas driver’s license; U.S. passport; a concealed-handgun permit; or an election identification certificate issued by the State Department of Public Safety.

While the Voting Rights Act still prohibits states from enacting laws intended to disenfranchise minority voters, whether photo ID laws do so or not, remains to be determined by the courts.


Gerrymandering is the process of employing the process of “apportionment” to improperly redraw the boundaries of state and local election districts in a way that tends to predetermine the results of elections by diluting the voting power of certain groups of people.

For example, gerrymandering has been used in the past to “break up” election districts populated by mainly black voters, thus lessening the chances of black candidates being elected to local and state offices.

Unlike photo ID laws, gerrymandering almost always violates the Voting Rights Act, because it typically targets minority voters.

Equal Access to the Polls for Disabled Voters

Approximately 1 in five eligible American voters has a disability. Failing to provide disabled persons easy and equal access to polling places is against the law.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires the states to ensure that voting systems, including voting machines and ballots, and polling places are accessible to people with disabilities. In addition, the law require that assistance at the polling place is available to people with limited English skills. As of Jan. 1, 2006, every voting precinct in the nation is required to have at least one voting machine available and accessible to persons with disabilities. Equal access is defined as providing persons with disabilities the same opportunity for participation in voting, including privacy, independence and assistance, afforded other voters. To help in evaluating a precinct's compliance with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the Justice Department provides this handy checklist for polling places.

Voter Registration Made Easy

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also called the "Motor Voter" law, requires all states to offer voter registration and assistance at all offices where people apply for driver's licenses, public benefits or other government services. The law also prohibits the states from removing voters from the registration rolls simply because they have not voted. The states are also required to ensure the timeliness of their voter registration rolls by regularly removing voters who have died or moved.

Our Soldiers' Right to Vote

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 requires the states to ensure that all members of the U.S. armed forces who are stationed away from home, and citizens who are living overseas, can register and vote absentee in federal elections.