Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws

The right to vote is a fundamental right for all citizens of the United States. Protecting your voting rights is the cornerstone of democracy. Voting is a way to urge the U.S. government to enact federal and state laws that align with your beliefs and interests.

This article provides a comprehensive overview of federal voting rights laws. It aims to encourage readers to learn more about their right to vote, eligibility to vote, and other relevant topics.

Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Groundwork

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed discrimination in different contexts, including discriminatory practices in voter registration to racial segregation in public schools and businesses. Title I of the act focused on eliminating racial discrimination in determining voter eligibility. In particular, Title I made significant revisions to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, targeting discriminatory practices such as:

  1. The application of inconsistent criteria for voter qualification
  2. The use of literacy tests as a precondition for voter registration
  3. The rejection of voter applications because of minor registration or documentation requirements errors

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Enacted a year after the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the primary source of law for federal voting laws. This act is one of the most influential civil rights laws in the history of the United States.

The act became law during the term of President Lyndon B. Johnson. It aimed to remove barriers that prevented African Americans from voting. Although the 15th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination when it comes to voting, African Americans faced various challenges. This prevented them from exercising their right to vote.

Many voting rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s faced violence and mistreatment. One of the most notable incidents was the one that happened on March 7, 1965. During the Selma to Montgomery march, peaceful protesters faced brutal attacks from Alabama state troopers. The incident was broadcast on national television.

Because of the shocking events, President Johnson pushed for a more comprehensive voting rights law. During his historic speech on March 15, 1965, before the House of Representatives and the Senate, the president talked about how election officers deny African Americans their right to vote.

For instance, election officials gave African Americans attempting to exercise their right to vote misleading voting details, unfair literacy tests, or incorrectly informed them about their voter registrations.

The act included a prohibition against racial and language discrimination in voting practices and policies and banned literacy tests outright.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965

Section 5 is a special provision requiring states with histories of discriminatory practices to get advance federal approval before changing their voting rights laws. The section is to ensure that these laws' changes do not have a discriminating effect or purpose, or it would go against the guarantees of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. This advance federal approval is sought from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia or the Attorney General.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act

Congress has required bilingual voting materials and ballots for language minority groups in certain jurisdictions since 1975. The designated jurisdictions are those with over 10,000 or over 5% of the total voting age who do not understand English well. Section 203 focuses on the languages of minority citizens who have suffered a history of exclusion from the political process, including the following:

  • Spanish
  • Asian languages
  • Native American languages
  • 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 people with disabilities at polling places used for federal elections. If there is no polling place with access available, then a political subdivision must provide an alternative means of casting a ballot on Election Day. The act also requires voting aids to help the elderly and disabled. This includes 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 the following states and territories to allow overseas citizens and military members and their families to vote by absentee ballot in federal elections:

  • All U.S. states
  • District of Columbia
  • American Samoa
  • Guam
  • Puerto Rico
  • U.S. Virgin Islands

National Voter Registration Act of 1993

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), or the Motor Voter Act, established guidelines for voter registration in federal elections. The key provisions of this election law include:

Section 5. The states should allow voter registration at motor vehicle agencies during their driver's license application, renewal, or change of address. They should also have the same opportunity to register while processing state-issued personal identification documents. Also, the forms to change addresses for driver's license purposes should allow voters to update their registration unless the person opts out of this service.

Section 6. States should offer an opportunity to register to vote through mail-in applications.

Section 7. States should allow voter registration in different state and local offices. This includes those offices that give services to people with disabilities and provide public help.

Section 8. States must keep accurate and current voter lists. This ensures efficient implementation of the procedures and management of voter registration.

The NVRA applies to 44 states as well as the District of Columbia. The following states are exempt from implementing provisions of the NVRA:

  • Idaho
  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming
  • Territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa

These states are mainly exempt because they do not have voter registration requirements or offer same-day registration on election day at polling places. Although the NVRA specifically talks about federal elections, many states extended these requirements to apply similarly to state and local elections.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA)

In response to the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the government enacted the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. In particular, there were high-profile issues in Florida where questions about the vote count caused delays in determining the election's outcome. HAVA aimed to improve the election process throughout the United States through the following measures:

Establishment of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC)

The commission provides dedicated support for election administration. HAVA created the agency as an essential resource rather than an election regulatory body. It was a compromise between creating a new regulatory agency and expanding an existing office. The role of the EAC is vital in helping and guiding states and localities to improve their election processes.

Standardization of Election Administration

HAVA created new federal standards for conducting federal elections. This includes requirements for:

  • Voting systems
  • Provisional voting
  • Voter information
  • Statewide voter registration database
  • Voter ID
  • Use of federal mail voter registration form

Federal Grant Programs

The federal government recognizes that these new requirements may cause a financial burden. So, HAVA authorized federal grants to assist states and localities in upgrading the election systems. These federal grants support various improvements. They include modernizing voting technology, enhancing access for people with disabilities, and encouraging young people to vote. In support of this, the U.S. Department of Justice released a guide to improving the accessibility of voting stations for voters with disabilities.

The U.S. upheld the HAVA through litigation and by communicating the U.S. Department of Justice's views on the act's requirements.

HAVA continued to play an essential role in improving U.S. election policies. It responded to challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and foreign interference. The act's broad focus distinguishes it from other election laws. It's vital legislation for improving election accessibility and administration.

Federal Laws Protect Your Right to Vote

To continuously improve election administration and accessibility, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice plays a crucial role. The division is integral in enforcing laws protecting your right to vote. It oversees matters related to voter fraud and voter suppression. It also ensures implementation of the principles upheld by laws like HAVA. People who experience violation of their voting rights may also bring private lawsuits.

Get Help With Your Voting Rights From an Attorney

Your right to vote is a fundamental aspect of your democracy. If you are an eligible or registered voter and believe someone has violated your right to vote, you must respond promptly. A civil rights attorney can give you legal advice tailored to your situation. They can help you navigate the complexities of voting rights laws and represent your interests if further legal action is necessary. Feel free to seek legal support if you encounter issues about voting rights. Contact a civil rights attorney near you.

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