It’s time we learned about the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Last month the Supreme Court began hearing arguments challenging certain aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. People need to know what’s at stake in this battle over key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, something which so many fought so hard for so many years ago.

This act was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. It outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting.

During the last presidential election we witnessed attempts by more than 15 states to change how their citizens register to vote. States that once bragged about easy access to the voting process suddenly turned around and enacted the most oppressive voter-registration laws in the nation. Public statements by local officials attempting to enact these measures confirmed the desired result. “Depress access to the ballot for African-Americans, Latinos/Hispanics and other minorities,” one state official candidly admitted.

Now the issue is before the Supreme Court, and Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments have reinforced the perception that these attitudes are evident even in the highest court of the land.

According to published reports, “In oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Act, Justice Antonin Scalia slandered the act as a “racial entitlement,” arguing, “whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

What are the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act?

The most important permanent provisions are in Section 2, which bans racial discrimination in voting nationwide, and Sections 4 and 201, which ban literacy tests nationwide. The most important temporary provisions – those are provisions periodically reauthorized by Congress – are:
Section 5, which requires certain state and local governments (called “covered jurisdictions”) to “preclear” proposed changes in voting or election procedures with either the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and;
Section 203, which requires that certain state and local jurisdictions provide assistance in languages other than English to voters who are not literate or fluent in English.
Sections 6-9, which give the U.S. Attorney General the power to send federal examiners and observers to monitor elections.

How does preclearance under Section 5 work?

A covered jurisdiction that wants to change laws and practices affecting voting is required to submit the change along with a letter explaining the change to the Justice Department. The jurisdiction must demonstrate that the change 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 [or membership in a language minority group].” Citizens may submit comments to the Justice Department on how the proposed change will affect their community. Within 60 days, the department responds either by approving or “preclearing” the change or by objecting to it. An objection bars the jurisdiction from implementing the proposed change. If an objection is issued and a jurisdiction wishes to appeal, the jurisdiction may seek preclearance through the D.C. District Court. The jurisdiction may alternatively preclear its changes through a lawsuit in the D.C. District Court.

Where does Section 5 apply?

Section 5 affects all or part of the following 16 states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas; and most of Virginia, four counties in California, five counties in Florida, two townships in Michigan, 10 towns in New Hampshire, three counties in New York, 40 counties in North Carolina, and two counties in South Dakota. A formula designed by Congress applies Section 5 to any state or county in which a literacy test was used as of Nov. 1, 1964, and where a participation rate of less than 50 percent by eligible voters in the 1964 presidential election showed the test had a racially discriminatory basis. Later amendments to the Act included the years 1968 and 1972 in the coverage formula.

Voting Rights Act (1965)

This “act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution” was signed into law 95 years after the amendment was ratified. In those years, African-Americans in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny them the right to cast ballots. They also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African-Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power either locally or nationally.

In 1964, numerous demonstrations took place, and the considerable violence that erupted brought renewed attention to the voting-rights issue. The murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and the attack by state troopers on peaceful marchers in Selma, Ala., gained national attention and persuaded President Johnson and Congress to initiate meaningful and effective national voting-rights legislation. The combination of public revulsion to the violence and Johnson’s political skills stimulated Congress to pass the voting rights bill on Aug. 5, 1965.

The legislation, which President Johnson signed into law the next day, outlawed literacy tests and provided for the appointment of federal examiners with the power to register qualified citizens to vote in those jurisdictions that were “covered” according to the formula in the statute. In addition, Section 5 required those covered jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” from either the District Court for the District of Columbia or the U.S. Attorney General for any new voting practices and procedures. Section 2, which closely followed the language of the 15th amendment, applied a nationwide prohibition of the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color. The use of poll taxes in national elections had been abolished by the 24th amendment (1964) to the Constitution; the Voting Rights Act directed the Attorney General to challenge the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), the Supreme Court held Virginia’s poll tax to be unconstitutional under the 14th amendment.

Because the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the most significant statutory change in the relationship between the federal and state governments in election law since the Reconstruction period, it was immediately challenged in the courts. Between 1965 and 1969, the Supreme Court issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 and affirming the broad range of voting practices for which preclearance was required. [See South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 327-28 (1966) and Allen v. State Board of Elections, 393 U.S. 544 (1969)]

The law had an immediate impact. By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one-third by federal examiners. By the end of 1966, only four out of the 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of its African-American citizens registered to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975, and 1982. (

March 2013 Urban CNY The Hall Monitor