The Voting Rights Act

July 27, 2015

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most important and effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed. As he signed the bill into law, President Johnson said, “Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.” His words have been proven right. For almost half a century the VRA helped to secure and safeguard the fundamental right to vote for millions of Americans, transforming our democracy and allowing all Americans to make their voices heard. 

Yet today—fifty years after the passage of the VRA, and two years after a devastating Supreme Court decision that essentially gutted the heart of the legislation—voting rights are in danger once again. Join ADL in telling Congress to restore the protections of the VRA and secure the right to vote for all Americans.

A Difficult Road to the VRA: A Brief History of Voting Rights in America

After the Civil War, Congress moved quickly to enfranchise African American men. Ratified in 1870, the 15th Amendment proclaimed, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

For a period of time, the 15th Amendment and federal laws were successful in securing the right to vote for African Americans. During the period after the Civil War known as Reconstruction, 75 to 95 percent of African American men in the South were registered to vote. Half of the representatives in the lower house of South Carolina’s legislature were black, as was 42 percent of Louisiana’s lower state house.

When Reconstruction ended in 1877 and Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation in the South began to take hold, however, voting rights for African Americans came under fire. States soon began enacting laws designed to keep African Americans from voting, including literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes. The courts struck down the laws one by one, but by the time the legal challenges had succeeded, the states had enacted other discriminatory laws. By the early 1900s, 90 percent of African Americans in the South had been effectively disenfranchised.

Bloody Sunday: A Tipping Point for Voting Rights

As the civil rights movement advocated for equal rights and justice for all, voting rights became a top priority. March 7, 1965 turned a national spotlight on the need for a Voting Rights Act as never before.  That day, which would become known as Bloody Sunday, the nation’s attention turned to Selma, Alabama, where state troopers and a sheriff’s posse brutally attacked 575 demonstrators attempting to march peacefully to Montgomery. The marchers had gathered for two purposes: to advocate for voting rights for African Americans and to protest the murder of a young African American man named Jimmie Lee Jackson.  Jackson had been killed by a state trooper a month before during a voter registration march.

A week after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson delivered an impassioned speech before Congress.  In it, he said: “Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult.  But about this there can and should be no argument: every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to insure that right.”  Later that week, hearings began on what would later become the VRA.

The Voting Rights Act

The two most important components of the VRA were Section 2 and Section 5.  Section 2 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. It applies across the nation, giving the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights groups a sword to fight discriminatory voting laws anywhere they arise.

Section 5 applied only to jurisdictions – including some entire states – with  a history of discriminatory voting practices.  Recognizing that for decades certain places had used things like literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses to prevent African Americans from voting, section 5 required those areas to “preclear” their laws with the Department of Justice or a federal court. It became the shield of the VRA, blocking discriminatory laws before they could go into effect.

Almost immediately, Southern states that would have to preclear their voting practices challenged the VRA in court. In a landmark decision in South Carolina v. Katzenbach in 1966, the Supreme Court upheld the law, concluding that “The Voting Rights Act was designed by Congress to banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting, which has infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century.”

The Success of the Voting Rights Act

The success of the VRA was clear almost immediately. African American voter registration rates increased dramatically, and the number of African Americans elected to public office increased fivefold within five years of the VRA’s passage. By the early 2000s there were more than 9,000 African American elected officials in the United States—including the first African American president—and most were in areas required to preclear their laws under Section 5.

Each time the VRA came up for reauthorization it received overwhelming Congressional support.  The last time Congress extended the VRA, in 2006, it did so after an exhaustive examination of voting discrimination and the impact of the VRA – days of hearings and thousands of pages of documentation.  The legislation passed overwhelmingly: 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate.

Voting Rights in Danger: Shelby County v. Holder

The landscape changed significantly in 2013.  That June, after upholding the constitutionality of the VRA almost a dozen times, a deeply divided Supreme Court struck down a major part of the law, essentially gutting the heart of the statute. Although the Court upheld the idea of preclearance, in Shelby County v. Holder by a 5-4 vote it struck down the formula used to determine which states and areas would have to preclear their voting practices. However, importantly, the Court left the door open for Congress to draft a new formula and revive the essential voting rights protections.

Almost immediately after the decision, states that had been subject to preclearance oversight for voting changes began enacting laws that threaten to disproportionately disenfranchise minority, young, poor, and elderly voters. Texas, for example, enacted a redistricting plan that federal courts had previously rejected because they found “more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here.”  In another case about Texas' voter ID law, a court prior to 2013 had concluded that, ”simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last elections will, because of the burdens imposed by SB 14, likely be unable to vote.”

Texas was not alone in quickly moving to enact unwarranted voter ID laws, discriminatory redistricting plans, and restrictions on voter registration and early voting opportunities. In fact, the efforts over the last two years to restrict voting rights around the country are unprecedented in modern America. The United States has not seen such a major legislative push to limit voting rights since right after Reconstruction.

A Critical Fix for the VRA

In Shelby County, the Court invited Congress to craft a new formula based on its guidance.  New legislation, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, has now been introduced in both the House and the Senate for this purpose. The measure would update the coverage formula, put in place additional safeguards for voting, and help ensure that all Americans can have their say in our democracy.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the VRA, it’s time to legislate, not just commemorate. Join ADL in telling Congress to fix the VRA and secure the right to vote for all Americans.

Learn More About ADL's Voting Rights Work

Resources for Educators and Families

"Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult.  But about this there can and should be no argument: every American citizen must have an equal right to vote." -President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965