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Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is federal legislation that seeks to prevent voting discrimination based on race, color, or membership in a minority group.  The Act outlaws discriminatory voting practices and prohibits states from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

The passage of the Voting Rights Act was a watershed event in U.S. history.  For the first time the federal government undertook voting reforms that had traditionally been left to the states.   The Act prohibits the states and their political subdivisions from imposing voting qualifications or prerequisites to voting or from imposing standards, practices, or procedures that deny or curtail the right of a U.S. citizen to vote because of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.  Pursuant to the Act, the Voting Section undertakes investigations and litigation throughout the United States and its territories, conducts administrative review of changes in voting practices and procedures in certain jurisdictions, and monitors elections in various parts of the country.  The Act was extended in 1970 and again in 1982, and its provisions were given an additional term of twenty-five years.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 contains many important provisions.  Section 2 of the Act is a nationwide prohibition against certain voting practices and procedures.  This section prohibits discrimination in poll worker hiring and voter registration procedures.  It also prohibits both election-related practices and procedures that are intended to be racially discriminatory, as well as those that are shown to have a racially discriminatory impact.  The Attorney General, as well as affected private citizens, may bring lawsuits under Section 2 to obtain court-ordered remedies for violations of Section 2.

Section 4 of the Act sets forth the criteria for determining whether a jurisdiction is covered under the special provisions of the Act.

Section 5 freezes changes in election practices or procedures in certain states until the new procedures have been determined as having neither discriminatory purpose nor effect.  If the proposed change has not been shown to be free of discrimination under the act, the Attorney General may block implementation of the change by interposing an objection.

Section 3 and Section 8 give the federal courts and the Attorney General, respectively, authority to certify counties for the assignment of federal observers.  Federal observers are assigned to polling places so they can monitor election-day practices in response to concerns about discrimination in the voting process and to provide information about compliance with bilingual election procedures.  Department staff may also be sent to monitor elections.

Section 208 of the Act deals with the provisions for voters requiring assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write.  Any such voter may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of the employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.

The constitutional validity of the Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in S.C. v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (U.S. 1966).

Though the Constitution’s 15th Amendment (passed in 1870) had guaranteed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” several steps were taken by the southern states to disenfranchise African Americans.  With the Voting Rights Act, Congress prohibited Southern states from using literacy tests to determine eligibility to vote.  Under the law a federal court can appoint federal examiners who are authorized to place qualified persons on the list of eligible voters.  The Act waived accumulated poll taxes and abolished literacy tests and similar devices in the states to which it applied.

In addition, the Act originally required the states to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before changing the electoral system.  The 1982 extension of the Act expanded this provision to include all the states.  Thus, a voter in any state may challenge a voting practice or procedure on the grounds that it is racially discriminatory either by intent or by effect.

The Act has been used to create congressional districts that have a majority of minority voters so as to ensure minority representation.  In Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (U.S. 1996) however, the Supreme Court ruled that the redrawing of a North Carolina congressional district into a “bizarre-looking” shape so as to include a majority of African Americans violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore could not be justified by the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is considered to be the most effective civil rights statute enacted by Congress.   The Act is widely considered a landmark in civil-rights legislation, though some of its provisions have sparked political controversy.  There are some who argue that the Act represents an overreach of federal power and places unwarranted bureaucratic demands on Southern states that have long since abandoned the discriminatory practices the Act was meant to eradicate.  Nonetheless, the Congress voted to extend the Act for twenty-five years with its original enforcement provisions left intact.

Inside Voting Rights Act of 1965