Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteeing voting rights for black citizens. It was a huge step toward protecting the right to vote for all Americans. President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act began to address America’s long history of denying black Americans the right to vote. For 100 years, the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous conditional of servitude” was made useless by tactics like secret ballots, poll taxes, literacy tests and other practices that made it impossible for most blacks to vote. When these laws were in place, black voting plummeted throughout the south. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, in Mississippi alone the percentage of black voting-age men who were registered to vote fell from 90% during the Reconstruction period after the 15th Amendment’s passage to about 6% in 1892. By 1940, only about 3% of eligible blacks in the south were registered to vote.
After decades of state and local officials acting to disenfranchise African Americans through the use of both legal and illegal tactics, there was little action from Congress. But the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with the reaction to the violence inflicted on voting-rights protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965, prompted federal legislators to respond. Together with other laws, the Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and gave the U.S. Department of Justice authority to challenge the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. Passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964 already barred the use of poll taxes in national elections. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act essentially restated the 15th Amendment, prohibiting any voting rules or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race or color. Amendments to the law in 1975 extended its protections to members of a language minority group, such as speakers of Spanish or Native American languages. Additional amendments in 1982 permitted citizens challenging voting regulations under Section 2 to prove only that, in the “totality of the circumstance of the local electoral process,” the rules abridge voting rights.
The original Voting Rights Act provided for special intervention in jurisdictions where racial discrimination is believed to be greatest. Under Section 5, those parts of the country identified by a formula established in Section 4 must obtain “pre-clearance” from the DOJ or the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia before making any changes to its voting laws. However, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 2 (2013), struck down the Section 4 formula, leaving Section 5 intact but requiring legislators to redraw its coverage before further enforcement. Since then, several amendments have been proposed but Congress has not yet acted.
Now, fifty years later, the nation still faces restrictions on voting rights. Voting rights cases are taking place in North Carolina, and in Ohio and Wisconsin, where two other voting lawsuits ended only recently. And one day before the Voting Rights Act turned 50 years old, U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Veasey v. Abbott that the Texas voter ID law had a “discriminatory effect” that violates the federal law that prohibits racial discrimination. In the months and years ahead, the fate of the Voting Rights Act will be decided in Congress and in the courts. But its legacy as the singular triumph of the civil rights movement will remain strong.
The Brooklyn Law School Library has many titles in its collection on the subject of the Voting Rights Act. The latest is Latinos and the Voting Rights Act: The Search for Racial Purpose by Henry Flores (Call # KFT1620.85.A6 F56 2015). It explores the role race and racism played in the Texas redistricting process and the creation and passage of the state’s Voter Identification Law in 2011. In addition to reviewing the redistricting history of the state, the book provides an analysis of court decisions concerning the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act, and a thorough discussion of the Shelby County decision. Flores brings together scholarly research and the analysis of significant Supreme Court decisions focusing on race to discuss Texas’ election policy process. This is the first book that speaks specifically to the effects of electoral politics and Latinos. Flores concludes that the tense race relations between Anglos and Latinos in Texas affected both the redistricting process and the creation of the Voter ID Bill.