Voting Rights History and Law

Challenges to the right to vote have occurred throughout the history of the United States. The Voting Rights Act, a crowning achievement of civil rights legislation, opened up voting rights for millions of voters of color.

The Voting Rights Act prohibits discrimination in voting practices based on race and color. In 1975, legislators updated the law to include protections for language-minority citizens of the United States. The act also contains provisions for the ill and disabled, allowing them to exercise their right to vote.

Early Voting Rights History

In the early United States, the U.S. Constitution did not protect voting rights. Constitutional amendments made in the 19th century extended these protections.

After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment established the right to vote in state and federal elections. State and election officials cannot deny anyone this right on the mere basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It thus granted African American men the right to vote. But, African American women were still disenfranchised. Women's suffrage was not extended until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Parts of the nation, particularly in the South, resisted efforts by African Americans to assert their voting rights. Opponents used illegal and legal means to limit the voting ranks. Extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan intimidated and threatened Black voters.

Some state governments enacted laws known as Jim Crow laws that prevented African Americans from voting. For instance, many states required potential voters to pass a literacy test before casting a ballot. Because the literacy tests also excluded many poor white men from voting, grandfather clauses allowed officials to specifically target African Americans while creating an exception for white men.

An even more direct way of trampling African Americans' right to vote was the practice in Southern states of holding white primaries. In these elections, to nominate candidates, officials allowed only white voters to cast ballots. The U.S. Supreme Court held that these white primaries were unconstitutional. Still, other discriminatory practices, such as poll taxes, kept Black Americans from voting.

Voting Rights in the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement addressed the chronic violation of voting rights. By making the issue a major part of the civil rights agenda, the movement got the attention of Congress. They then enacted voting rights legislation during this era.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created both the Civil Rights Division within the U.S. Department of Justice and the Commission on Civil Rights. It also authorized the U.S. attorney general to sue for injunctive relief in district court on behalf of people — particularly those whose 15th Amendment rights had been violated.

The 1960 Civil Rights Act allowed federal courts to appoint voting referees. These officials conducted voter registration in jurisdictions where voter discrimination had occurred.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a major step toward equality for all Americans. It included a provision that banned the unequal application of voter registration requirements.

Even with these advances, disenfranchisement for minority voters persisted. Civil rights activists continued emphasizing voting rights by holding voter registration drives and protests. Much of the action centered on Selma, Alabama.

Selma-to-Montgomery Marches

Selma had been the site of many protests and marches before the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965. On February 17, 1965, civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot during a peaceful protest in Marion, Alabama. He died days later from his injuries. This incident catalyzed nonviolent protests known as the marches.

Yet, Selma Sheriff Jim Clark greatly opposed the march and responded with violence. The protesters were victims of an unprovoked attack by law enforcement. Also, many other acts of violence occurred during this time, some fatal. The national attention and general outcry against these events helped to get the Voting Rights Act enacted.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The VRA was enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives in 1965. It contains special provisions that apply to certain jurisdictions. The VRA also contains general provisions that apply nationwide.

General Provisions of the VRA

Section 2 is a general provision banning voting laws that discriminate against racial and language minorities. Another general provision bans discriminatory practices used to prevent racial minorities from voting.

This includes literacy tests. Election officials administered this test to potential voters to assess their understanding of various constitutional and civic concepts. But, in reality, these tests were not applied uniformly to all potential voters. Officials used it as a tool to bar minorities from voting by using difficult or irrelevant questions.

The general provision does not ban poll taxes. The act directs the attorney general and the U.S. Department of Justice to contest the use of poll taxes. The 24th Amendment, enacted in 1964, finally ended the poll tax.

Special Provisions of the VRA

The VRA contains a special provision requiring certain jurisdictions to provide bilingual voting materials and ballots. Section 5 contains a special provision that forces certain jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination to get "preclearance." With this, the federal government should clear the changes before jurisdictions can change the laws.

Section 4 created a special formula to determine the coverage for the provisions of Section 5. But, the Supreme Court overturned Section 4 in Shelby County v. Holder.

Voting Age

For a long time, you needed to be 21 to vote. In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. This lowered the voting age for all to 18, expanding the electorate.

Voting With Disabilities

Federal protections exist to ensure people can vote, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects people with disabilities, giving them, among other rights, equal opportunity to vote. This includes:

  • Information about upcoming elections
  • Accommodations for voter registration
  • Election day accommodations, including ballot assistance, parking, interpreters, etc.

Voting Rights Today

The battle over voting rights continues. Racial gerrymandering, which is when state legislatures create voting districts designed to dilute the votes of Black voters, remains a problem in some places. As recently as June 2023, the Supreme Court struck down such a voting scheme created by the Republicans in the Alabama legislature in Allen v. Milligan.

In 2021, Texas Senate Bill 1 faced legal challenges as it imposed voting restrictions. The law includes provisions such as restrictions on mail-in ballot distribution, a ban on 24-hour and drive-thru voting, and setting new voter ID requirements. Plaintiffs who challenged the legislature argue that it disproportionately affects people of color.

There have also been cases addressing ID requirements. Some claim that requiring photo identification at polling places discriminates against Black voters and dilutes their political power. Voter ID laws will likely make their way to the Supreme Court before the 2024 presidential election.

We may also see cases brought by other minorities, such as Asian Americans and Native Americans, who claim that their voting rights are being infringed through racial discrimination.

Protect Your Voting Rights

Has someone interfered with your voting rights by denying you access to the polling place or trying to dilute your voting power? If you think your voting rights have been violated, talk to a civil rights attorney. They can help you understand the complexities of voting rights. You can go to the FindLaw directory for a civil rights attorney in your area.

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