Voting Rights Act of 1965

History of the Civil Rights Law

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The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a key component of the civil rights movement that seeks to enforce the Constitution's guarantee of every American's right to vote under the 15th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act was designed to end discrimination against Black Americans, particularly those in the South after the Civil War.

Text of the Voting Rights Act

An important provision of the Voting Rights Act reads:

"No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

The provision reflected the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, which reads:

"The right of U.S. citizens 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."

History of the Voting Rights Act

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965.

The law made it illegal for Congress and state governments to pass voting laws based on race and has been described as the most effective civil rights law ever enacted. Among other provisions, the act prohibited discrimination through the use of poll taxes and the application of literacy tests to determine whether voters could take part in elections.

Legal Battles

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several major rulings on the Voting Rights Act.

The first was in 1966. The court initially upheld the constitutionality of the law:

"Congress had found that case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat wide-spread and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinate amount of time and energy required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered in these lawsuits. After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims."

In 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required nine states to get federal approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C., before making any changes to their election laws. That pre-clearance provision was originally set to expire in 1970 but was extended numerous times by Congress.

The decision was 5-4. Voting to invalidate that provision in the act were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Voting in favor of keeping the law intact were Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Roberts, writing for the majority, said that portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was outdated and that "the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions":

"Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."

In the 2013 decision, Roberts cited data that showed turnout among Black voters had grown to exceed that of white voters in most of the states originally covered by the Voting Rights Act. His comments suggest that discrimination against Black Americans had diminished greatly since the 1950s and 1960s.

States Impacted

The provision struck down by the 2013 ruling covered nine states, most of them in the South:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Virginia

End of the Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court's 2013 ruling was decried by critics who said it gutted the law. President Barack Obama was sharply critical of the decision:

"I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act—enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress—has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent."

The ruling was praised, however, in states that had been overseen by the federal government. In South Carolina, Attorney General Alan Wilson described the law as an "extraordinary intrusion into state sovereignty in certain states":

"This is a victory for all voters as all states can now act equally without some having to ask for permission or being required to jump through the extraordinary hoops demanded by federal bureaucracy."

A New Voting Rights Act

In his writing on the Shelby County v. Holder decision, Chief Justice Roberts added that Congress has the ability to impose federal oversight on states in which voting rights are at risk—essentially reinstating the invalidated provision—by specifically justifying it with contemporary data. Democrats' response to this was the Voting Rights Advancement Act, later renamed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act after the late congressman and civil rights leader.

The bill passed in the House of Representatives in December 2019 with members voting almost exactly along party lines. As the 2013 Supreme Court decision was popular among many Republicans, the new act has little hope of passing the Republican-held Senate.

View Article Sources
  1. United States, Congress, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Sec. 2.

  2. United States Constitution. Amend. XV, Sec. 1.

  3. United States, Congress, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Sec. 10(b).

  4. United States, Congress, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Sec. 4(e).

  5. State of South Carolina v. Katzenbach. 383 U.S. 301. 1966.

  6. Shelby County v. Holder. 570 U.S. 529. 2013.

  7. Statement by the President on the Supreme Court Ruling on Shelby County v. Holder.” 25 June 2013.

  8. Attorney General Alan Wilson Issues Statement on Shelby County v. Holder. 2013.