Voting Rights and Discrimination FAQ

Explore the crucial questions on voting rights and discrimination. This article highlights both the historical injustices and the current challenges in America's electoral system.

Navigating the legal landscape of voting rights in the United States is crucial in ensuring your voice is heard. This article discusses some frequently asked questions about voting rights and voter discrimination. It looks into the historical context of how the Voting Rights Act came to be and its impact on voting laws today.

What is the Voting Rights Act?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a transformative law that removed the barriers to voting among minority groups across the country, mainly African Americans. The law protects eligible voters, regardless of race, color, sex, and disability. The Act was enacted into law on August 6, 1965, and since then, it played an essential part in the electoral process in the United States.

What are the fundamental voting rights protected under the U.S. Constitution?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed U.S. citizen's right to vote and be free from discrimination. The 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution protect eligible voters from voting restrictions based on race or color. The 19th Amendment likewise prohibits election officials from denying U.S. citizens their right to vote based on sex. Meanwhile, the 24th Amendment outlaws the use of poll tax, and the 26th Amendment guarantees that U.S. citizens 18 years old and above can exercise their right to vote.

How have literacy tests been used as a form of voter suppression?

The ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned states from denying U.S. citizens their right to vote on account of race. After its enactment, southern states started passing other measures, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, to keep black voters from voting.

Back then, the African American population suffered from a high rate of illiteracy. They were often required to take unreasonable literacy tests before voting, which they sometimes failed. For instance, election officials would ask black voters to recite the U.S. Constitution or explain complex law provisions. 

According to then-President Johnson, even white voters would have difficulty accomplishing this task. In some instances, even black voters with college degrees were turned away from polling places.

What law ended racial discrimination in voting?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark legislation that ended voting discrimination in the country. Before its enactment, civil rights activists fought for years against voting discrimination targeting people of color. The March 7, 1965 event on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, became the turning point of the reform.

On that day, later on, known as Bloody Sunday, protesters were on their way to the state capital when state troopers charged the peaceful marchers. The footage of the violence against the protesters shocked the nation. The events in Selma mobilized Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965.

The Voting Rights Act outlawed most discriminatory voting practices. This includes the use of literacy tests, the implementation of poll taxes, and the grandfather clause. These legislations intended to suppress the voting rights of people of color.

What measures are in place to ensure accessibility at polling places for voters with disabilities?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all polling places be accessible to people with disabilities. What this means is polling places should have:

  • Wheelchair-accessible polling places
  • Information in large print or Braille
  • Assistive voting technology or audio ballots for people with hearing or visual impairments
  • Accessible electronic information

Can a felony conviction affect one's voting rights?

A felony conviction can affect one's right to vote, but the impact varies from state to state. Most states automatically restore one's voting rights after release from jail or after probation or parole. Other states ask for registration or other requirements before restoring one's right to vote. This article on who can vote in the U.S. offers detailed information about the voting rights of citizens with felony convictions. 

Who is eligible to vote in local, state, and federal elections in the United States?

To exercise your right to vote, you should first meet certain criteria. The following are the general requirements to be eligible to vote in the United States:

  • U.S. Citizenship
  • Meet the state residency requirements
  • Voting age of at least 18 years old on the Election Day
  • Registered as a voter

Note that the requirements for voter registration may vary in every state. Some states allow registration on Election Day, while others have voter registration deadlines. There are also instances where a voter cannot exercise their right to vote. For instance, most states do not allow incarcerated individuals to vote while serving their sentence.

How can I check my voter registration status?

There are numerous ways for you to check your voter registration status online. You can do so through the website of your local election office or Vote.Org. Many states offer online services where voters can check their registration status by entering personal information such as their name, date of birth, and Social Security Number. You can also contact your local election office in person or via phone to ask about your voter registration status.

What are absentee ballots?

Absentee ballots are available to voters who cannot vote in person on Election Day. The reason is often due to illness, traveling abroad, or when the person is overseas for military duty. Family members of military service members can also vote through absentee ballots if they are also living overseas.

To vote as an absentee voter, request an absentee ballot from the election office at your voting residence. After receiving your ballot, you can do early voting by filling it out and mailing it in before Election Day. Each state has a deadline for election officers to receive the absentee ballot. You can learn more about it by visiting the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) website.

What are the forms of identification that I need to bring to the polling place?

The voter ID laws vary by state. In general, it may include photo identification and non-photo identification documents.

The following are some samples of photo identification documents that you can bring to the polling place:

  • Driver's license
  • Passport
  • Military ID
  • State-issued ID card
  • Voter ID

For non-photo identification documents, you can bring any of the following:

  • Bank statements
  • Utility Bills
  • Government check
  • Paycheck
  • Other government documents showing your name and address

What is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act?

Under Section 5 of the VRA, states cannot change election laws without prior approval from the Department of Justice, known as "preclearance." The VRA makes preclearance a prerequisite before making changes in voting laws. This guarantees that local administrators follow the standards set by VRA regarding equality and fairness.

Under Section 5, the state, county, or local government entity has to demonstrate to federal authorities that the voting change in question:

  • Does not have a racially discriminatory purpose
  • Will not make minority voters worse off than before the change (i.e., the change will not be "retrogressive")

Section 4 suggested a unique formula to specify the range for the provisions of Section 5, but in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court overturned the provisions of Section 4. Before the Court ruling, Section 5 applied to all or parts of the following states:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Virginia

What other voting rights laws exist?

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "motor voter" law) made voting registration more accessible. It requires States to make voter registration available at State motor vehicle agencies, state local offices, and by mail-in application. For instance, when you apply for a driver's license, you should likewise be able to register as a voter.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act requires states to ensure that members of our armed forces stationed away from home and citizens living overseas can register and vote absentee in federal elections.

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act requires polling places across the United States to be physically accessible to the elderly and people with disabilities.

Does the Voting Rights Act protect language minority groups?

Yes. The 1975 amendments to the VRA added provisions that required bilingual ballots. The Congress incorporated Section 203 of the act to cater to language minority groups. There are “covered jurisdictions" based on the data as determined by the Census Bureau.

With this, certain states and political subdivisions must give language assistance during elections. The VRA requires polling places to have poll workers fluent in any non-English language. In particular, they should have poll workers who can speak languages commonly spoken in that jurisdiction.

The Voting Rights Act requires polling locations to have poll workers conversant in any non-English language. In particular, poll workers who speak languages commonly spoken in that area should be available at the polling place.

The U.S. Department of Justice also mandates translating information written in English into a qualified minority language. This covers not only the ballots at the polling place but also the following:

  • Voter registration forms
  • Polling place notices
  • Instructional forms
  • Sample ballots
  • Absentee ballots
  • Election information pamphlets

Preserve Your Voting Rights

If you suspect that your right to vote was compromised or you experienced voter discrimination, you must seek legal action. Contact a civil rights attorney near you. They can guide you through understanding your voting rights and give you the representation necessary to challenge any discrimination or injustices you might face. Don't let discrimination or other electoral injustice affect your right to vote.

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