Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws

The right to vote is a significant civil liberty for all Americans because it impacts all other rights we have. The opportunity for citizens to choose who represents them in government represents everything that a democracy aspires to be. These ideals are not reflected in the Constitution by an absolute right to vote. Instead, state governments can enact their own voting laws and they can vary drastically. However, the federal government has certain, limited voting rights laws to help preserve and protect this essential right.

Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The section Title I of the Civil Rights Act requires equal application of voter registration requirements, voting rules, and procedures. When it was enacted in 1964, the Civil Rights Act addressed some of the issues that helped prevent racial minorities and others from voting, but still prevented many from fully participating in the electoral process. For example, Title I did not prohibit literacy tests which had been used to block many African American voters.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the main source of law for federal voting laws, was enacted a year after the Civil Rights Act and it was stronger, more direct, and more effective than Title I. It was enacted under tense circumstances, with national attention focused on the often-violent struggle to achieve equal voting rights for all citizens. The Act included not only a prohibition against racial and language discrimination in voting practices and policies, but it also banned literacy tests outright.

Section 5 is a special provision that requires states with histories of discriminatory practices to get advance federal approval before they can change their voting rights laws. Section 4 created a special formula to determine which jurisdictions were subject to this requirement; however, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 without invalidating Section 5 directly. The Court reasoned that the original conditions at the time section 4 was enacted had changed so drastically that the formula was now unnecessary.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act

Congress required bilingual voting materials and minority language ballots in certain jurisdictions since 1975. The designated jurisdictions are those with more than 10,000 voting-age minority citizens who do not know English well. Section 203 focuses on the languages of minority citizens that have suffered a history of exclusion from the political process, including Spanish, Asian languages, Native American languages, and Alaska Native languages. The law applies to primary and general elections and referenda, school districts, and special elections within designated jurisdictions.

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act requires access for the disabled at polling places used for federal elections. If there is no available polling place with access, then a political subdivision must provide an alternative means of casting a ballot on Election Day. The Act also requires the provision of voting aids to help the elderly and disabled, such as instructions in large print or information by telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs).

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) requires that all U.S. states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands allow certain U.S. citizens (overseas citizens and soldiers and their families) to vote by absentee ballot in federal elections.

National Voter Registration Act of 1993

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), also known as the Motor Voter Act, requires states to offer registration opportunities to eligible applicants when they apply for or renew a driver's license, public assistance, disability services, or other governmental services. It also prohibits states from removing registered voters from the voter rolls unless certain criteria are met.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA)

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), enacted in 2002 in response to the 2000 presidential election, establishes identification procedures and outlines minimum standards for states to follow regarding voting systems, provisional ballots, and other aspects of administering federal elections.

Get Help with your Voting Rights from an Attorney

Voting rights are so essential to the democratic process that they should be fiercely protected. Have your voting rights been denied? If you think that your right to vote has been violated, do something about it. First, talk to a knowledgeable civil rights attorney. An attorney can help you understand your rights and can help you take the next step.

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