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Voting Rights Act of (1965)

Voting Rights Act Of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a sweeping federal law that seeks to prevent voting discrimination based on race, color, or membership in a language minority group. The act was passed in the aftermath of one of the more violent episodes in the history of the civil rights movement. In 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led a group of civil rights supporters on a march to Selma, Alabama, to demand voting rights. They were met by police violence that resulted in the deaths of several marchers. The Selma violence galvanized voting rights supporters in Congress. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded by introducing the Voting Rights Act, the most sweeping piece of civil rights law in one hundred years. Congress enacted the measure five months later.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act was a watershed event in U.S. history. For the first time the federal government undertook voting reforms that had traditionally been left to the states. The act prohibits the states and their political subdivisions from imposing voting qualifications or prerequisites to voting or from imposing 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. The act was extended in 1970 and again in 1982, when its provisions were given an additional term of twenty-five years.

Southern states challenged the legislation as a dangerous attack on states' rights, but in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 86 S. Ct. 803, 15 L. Ed. 2d 769 (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act, even though it was, in the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, "inventive."

The initial act covered the seven states in the South that 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 the states to which it applied.

In addition, the act requires the seven states to obtain "preclearance" from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before changing the electoral system. The 1982 extension of the act expanded this provision to include all the states. Thus, a voter in any state may challenge a voting practice or procedure on the grounds that it is racially discriminatory either by intent or by effect.

The act has been used to create congressional districts that have a majority of minority voters so as to ensure minority representation. In Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 116 S. Ct. 1894, 135 L. Ed. 2d 207 (1996), however, the Supreme Court ruled that the redrawing of a North Carolina congressional district into a "bizarre-looking" shape so as to include a majority of African Americans violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore could not be justified by the Voting Rights Act.

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