The Voting Rights Act of 1965 Overview
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed July 30, 2020
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in response to Jim Crow laws and other restrictions of minorities' voting rights at the time, primarily in the Deep South. The Act has undergone several changes and additions since its passage. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court found a key provision of the Act unconstitutional.
The 1965 Enactment
By 1965, civil rights activists had been working for years to obtain voting rights for all Americans, but had only achieved minimal success. However, the murder of activists in Mississippi and Philadelphia, as well as numerous other acts of violence and terrorism, captured national attention and propelled the movement forward.
On March 7, 1965, in an event that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," state troopers descended on peaceful protestors in an unprovoked attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama where protestors were en route to the state capital in Montgomery. In response to this event and other acts of violence, President Johnson called for effective voting rights legislation. Subsequently, hearings began on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act.
The hearings showed that the Justice Department's efforts to eliminate discriminatory election practices by litigation on a case-by-case basis had been unsuccessful in opening up the registration process.
The VRA was enacted on August 6, 1965. Section 2 of the Act applied a nationwide prohibition on literacy tests. The Act also contained special provisions targeted at those areas of the country with histories of racial discrimination.
Under Section 5, jurisdictions covered by these special provisions could not make any voting rights law changes without preclearance from the federal government. In addition, the Attorney General could designate a county covered by these special provisions for the appointment of a federal examiner to review the qualifications of persons who wanted to register to vote. Further, in those counties where a federal examiner was serving, the Attorney General could request that federal observers monitor activities within the county's polling place.
The Voting Rights Act did not include a provision prohibiting poll taxes, but had directed the Attorney General to challenge its use. 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. Between 1965 and 1969 the Supreme Court also issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 and affirming the broad range of voting practices that required Section 5 review.
The 1970, 1975, and 1982 Amendments
In 1970 and 1975, Congress extended section 5 of the act for five and seven years respectively. The 1975 amendments also provided additional protections for language minority citizens who are more prone to voting discrimination.
In 1982, Congress further renewed the special provisions of the Act for another 25 years. The 1982 amendment came after the landmark decision Mobile v. Bolden, where the Supreme Court held that plaintiffs must show the state law had a discriminatory intent to prove the law violated the act. In response to this, Congress amended Section 2 so that plaintiffs can establish violation of the act by only showing the state law resulted in discrimination.
The 2013 Supreme Court Ruling
In a 5-4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act had achieved its main purpose (Shelby County v. Holder). Specifically, the Court overturned Section 4 of the Act, which laid out the formula for determining which states had to seek approval prior to enacting new voting laws. While Section 5 specifically addresses this requirement, the ruling on Section 4 renders Section 5 ineffective. Critics of the ruling, including Justice Ginsburg, argued that attempts to restrict minority voting in many southern states is still rampant, citing efforts in many states to redraw district maps in order to minimize the will of minorities.
Justices in the majority, however, claim that the special requirements for certain states are based on information from the 1960s. Therefore, the Court left the door open for Congress to update the Act by coming up with a new formula that complies with the 2013 ruling.
Defend Your Voting Rights
Although the Voting Rights Act has evolved, it is still a pivotal source for protecting our right to vote. Have your voting rights been threatened by voter suppression or inaccessibility? Defend your rights by talking to a civil rights attorney. Check the Findlaw directory for an attorney in your area.