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Voting Rights Act of (1965)

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The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.) prohibits the states and their political subdivisions from imposing voting qualifications or prerequisites to voting, or standards, practices, or procedures that deny or curtail the right of a U.S. citizen to vote because of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. A product of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT of the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act has proven to be an effective, but controversial, piece of legislation. The act was extended in 1970 and again in 1982, when its provisions were renewed for an additional twenty-five years.

In the early 1960s very few African Americans in the South were allowed to vote. Southern states used literacy tests and physical and economic coercion to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. The state legal system supported these practices, leaving African Americans and other minority groups with few options to challenge voting discrimination. CIVIL RIGHTS leaders organized public protests and voter registration drives, but met intense resistance from local authorities.

A 1965 march to Selma, Alabama, by Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. and other civil rights supporters to demand voting rights led to police violence and the murder of several marchers. The Selma violence galvanized voting rights supporters

African Americans line up to cast their votes during 1966 elections in Alabama. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, very few African Americans in the South were allowed to vote.
FLIP SCHULKE/CORBIS

in Congress. President LYNDON B. JOHNSON responded by introducing the Voting Rights Act, the toughest civil rights law in one hundred years. Congress enacted the measure five months later.

Congress based its authority to regulate voting practices on the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution, which gives all citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The passage of the act ended the traditional practice of allowing states to handle all matters concerning voting and elections. The Voting Rights Act is premised on the active participation of the U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT and the federal courts. Southern states challenged the legislation as a dangerous attack on STATES' RIGHTS, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 86 S. Ct. 803, 15 L. Ed. 2d 769 (1966), upheld the constitutionality of the act, despite the fact that the law was, in the words of Chief Justice EARL WARREN, "inventive."

The original act was directed at seven southern states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—which had used POLL TAXES, literacy tests, and other devices to obstruct registration by African Americans.

Under the law, a federal court can appoint federal examiners, who are authorized to place qualified persons on the list of eligible voters. The act waived accumulated poll taxes and abolished literacy tests and similar devices in those areas to which the statute applied. It required that bilingual election materials be made available in areas where more than five percent of the citizens are members of a single-language minority.

The act also required the seven states to obtain "preclearance" from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before making changes in the electoral system. The state has the burden of proving that the proposed changes do not have the purpose or effect of "denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color." The Supreme Court has liberally construed this provision to require approval of even inconsequential alterations. As a result, relocation of polling sites, changes in ballot forms, reapportionment of election districts, municipal annexations, and revision of rules pertaining to the qualifications of candidates and the appointive or elective nature of the office fall within the ambit of federal supervision. If a modification of the election law, such as redistricting, has the purpose or effect of denying or curtailing the right to vote on the basis of race, it may be held to violate the Voting Rights Act. The 1982 extension of the act revised this provision, extending it to all states. This means that a voter may challenge a voting practice or procedure on the ground that it is racially discriminatory either by intent or by effect.

The most controversial issue for the courts has been whether voting districts can be redrawn to facilitate the election of racial minorities. The lower federal courts had approved such reapportionment plans, but the Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to these attempts in SHAW V. HUNT, 517 U.S. 899, 116 S. Ct. 1894, 135 L. Ed. 2d 207 (1996). In Shaw the Court ruled that the redrawing of a North Carolina congressional district into a "bizarrelooking" shape so as to include a majority of African Americans could not be justified by the Voting Rights Act, because it violated the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.

The Voting Rights Act has proven effective in breaking down discriminatory barriers to voting. Enforcement of the act in the South resulted in substantially higher levels of voter registration among African Americans. Many politicians who formerly made overt appeals to white supremacy tempered their racist rhetoric to draw support from new black voters. In addition, many African Americans have been elected to public office in areas where whites had ruled exclusively.

FURTHER READINGS

"The Future of Majority-Minority Districts in Light of Declining Racially Polarized Voting." 2003. Harvard Law Review 116 (May).

Landsberg, Brian K. 2003. "Sumter County, Alabama and the Origins of the Voting Rights Act." Alabama Law Review 54 (spring).

Laney, Garrine P. 2003. The Voting Rights Act of 1965: Historical Background and Current Issues. New York: Nova Science.

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