Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, many states used poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other racially discriminatory measures to keep African Americans from voting.
In 1964, peaceful demonstrations by civil rights leaders brought national attention to this issue and convinced President Johnson and Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. This Act banned racial discrimination in voting and allowed a new generation of African American voters to challenge restrictive laws.
1. The Voting Rights Act of 1965
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a national voting rights act signed into law in August 1965, was a significant step forward in the fight to ensure that all people could access the polls. It was a victory for the civil rights movement, southern African Americans, and American democracy.
Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, southern states employed several strategies to deny Black voters the right to vote, including literacy tests, poll taxes, and an aggressive campaign of violence. These practices violated the United States Constitution, which guarantees people of all races the right to vote.
President Lyndon Johnson called for a strong voting rights law after peaceful demonstrations organized by Civil Rights leaders were met with violence in 1964. He sent a bill to Congress to ban racial discrimination in voting.
As the 1960s drew close, white supremacists began experimenting with new laws that effectively restricted African American election participation. Many of these measures were struck down by federal courts, but others were still in place.
After the Voting Rights Act was passed, African American voter registration rates soared, and race-based restrictions were eliminated. However, these gains were short-lived. Then, in 2013, a deep-divided Supreme Court upended the law’s core enforcement powers. In a 5-4 decision, the justices eliminated a requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination get approval from the Justice Department before passing new voting laws.
2. The Voting Rights Act of 1972
The Voting Rights Act of 1972 prohibits barriers to racial and ethnic minorities’ political participation, prohibits any election procedure that limits or excludes the ability to vote based on race, and mandates that jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination obtain federal approval before making changes to their election laws. It also provides protections against deceptive practices that could interfere with voters’ ability to exercise their rights.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the law on September 15, 1965, the most successful civil rights law. It has never lost a court case and has helped to increase minority voter participation.
One of the most dramatic changes in voting procedures under the Voting Rights Act was lowering the voting age to 18 nationwide. This change prompted an explosion of new black voters, and the Voting Rights Act became the centerpiece of a national civil rights movement.
Another controversial aspect of the Voting Rights Act was the requirement that states seeking to change their voting qualifications must first receive permission from the federal government before making the changes. This “preclearance” requirement is in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Despite this requirement, many states continued to pass laws making it difficult for racial minorities to register to vote. In addition, several Republican-controlled states adopted voting restrictions in the following years, making it harder for people of color to cast their ballots. The Supreme Court eventually blocked these practices.
3. The Voting Rights Act of 1975
The Voting Rights Act of 1975 is a national voting rights law passed to protect racial minorities from discrimination in the voting process. It was enacted at a time when African Americans were severely disfranchised in many Southern states.
Section 2 of the Act, which nearly mirrored the text of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, placed a federal restriction on denying or decreasing the right to vote based on race or color. In addition, special enforcement provisions were included in the Act to target jurisdictions where Congress feared voting discrimination was most likely.
It also suspended the use of literacy tests for voter registration in jurisdictions that were considered “covered” by a formula based on their history of discrimination and required covered areas to obtain federal approval before changing any voting laws or procedures (“preclearance”) that could potentially have a discriminatory effect. The Act also authorized the appointment of federal examiners to ensure that legally qualified voters were registered in covered jurisdictions and assigned federal observers to monitor the conduct of elections.
The VRA was initially designed to protect racial minorities from voting discrimination but was expanded in the 1970s to include members of other “language minority” groups, including voters who speak Spanish, Native American languages, Alaskan Native languages, and Asian languages. These groups have suffered from voting discrimination in several ways, including being denied access to bilingual election materials, being forced to register and cast ballots in their native languages, and being hampered by barriers such as language-related physical or environmental intimidation.
4. The Voting Rights Act of 2008
The Voting Rights Act is a national voting rights act that prohibits state and local governments from using discriminatory practices to limit voting rights. The law is designed to strengthen American democracy and promote racial justice and equity for all Americans.
Section 2 of the VRA bans drawing election districts in ways that improperly dilute minority voters’ voting power. Such practices often involve “cracking” a minority community between several election districts or “submerging” a community in a single multi-member district.
It also protects people with disabilities from voting discrimination and ensures that poll workers, voting officials, and voters are provided accurate information about elections.