The Voting Rights Act of 1965 Overview

The legislation aimed at getting rid of the barriers to voting that minority groups faced, mainly African Americans.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 emerged as a transformative law in America's civil rights movement. The act, which became law on Aug. 6, 1965, played a vital part in forming the landscape of American democracy. It ensured that all eligible U.S. citizens, regardless of race, can exercise their right to vote.

This article delves into the enactment, evolution, and enduring legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It highlights its history and impact on voting laws of jurisdictions nationwide.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was a landmark of civil rights activists' struggles. It was in response to Jim Crow laws and other restrictions on minorities' voting rights. The law has been subject to many amendments and interpretations as it echoed America's dynamic civil rights landscape. In 2013, an important ruling by the U.S. Supreme challenged a vital aspect of the act. This sparked debate on its efficacy and relevance.

The 1965 Enactment

By 1965, civil rights activists had been working for years to get voting rights for all Americans. They had only achieved minimal success. But, the murder of activists in Mississippi and Philadelphia and other acts of violence captured national attention and pushed the movement forward.

"Bloody Sunday" happened on March 7, 1965. Protestors were walking en route to the state capital in Montgomery. State troopers descended on peaceful protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Bloody Sunday highlighted the need to amend voting rights laws to protect the voting-age minority groups.

In response to this event and other acts of violence, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for effective voting rights legislation. Then, hearings began on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act.

The hearings showed the Justice Department's efforts to end discriminatory election practices based on race.

The VRA became law. 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 against Black voters.

Under Section 5 of the VRA, state legislatures cannot change election laws without approval from the Department of Justice. Before changing voting laws, the VRA and federal laws make "preclearance" a prerequisite. The U.S. attorney general also has the power to appoint a federal examiner to check the eligibility of people applying for voter registration. Also, in counties with a federal examiner, the attorney general could request federal observers to track the activities at the polling place. The act also included measures to oversee the redistricting efforts and conduct of local elections. This ensured that local officials followed the new standards of equality and fairness. The Voting Rights Act did not include a provision banning poll taxes. But it 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 said Virginia's poll tax was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Between 1965 and 1969, the Supreme Court also issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5. The Court also affirmed a 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 more protections for language-minority citizens 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. In Bolden, the Supreme Court said plaintiffs must show the state law had a discriminatory intent to prove the law violated the act. In response, Congress amended Section 2 so that plaintiffs could establish a violation of the act by only showing the state law resulted in discrimination. This also strengthens the protections under the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The 2013 Supreme Court Ruling

In a 5-4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act had achieved its primary 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 before enacting new voting laws. While Section 5 explicitly addresses this requirement, the ruling on Section 4 renders Section 5 ineffective.

Critics of the ruling, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argued that attempts to restrict minority voting in many southern states are still rampant. Ginsburg cited efforts in many states to redraw district maps to minimize the will of minorities. But justices in the majority claim that the particular requirements for specific states are from information from the 1960s. So, the Court left the door open for Congress to update the act by developing a new formula that complies with the 2013 ruling.

The Voting Rights Act Today

The legacy of VRA remains evident as we navigate modern voting rights. Despite setbacks, the law remains a fundamental framework. That's particularly so for challenging discriminatory practices and supporting electoral fairness. The continuous debate about voting rights and casting ballots emphasizes the relevance of this act. It echoes America's commitment to a more inclusive voting system in state and federal elections.

Defend Your Voting Rights

The journey of securing every American's right to vote came a long way and fought many challenges. Despite the enactment of VRA, voter suppressionvoter fraud, and other violations persist. If you believe someone violated or threatened your right to vote or encounter problems related to voting and election laws, seek legal help. A civil rights attorney can guide you in understanding your rights on Election Day. They can help you navigate these legal challenges. Contact a civil rights attorney near you to learn more.

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