What is the Voting Rights Act?

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, shortly following the Civil Rights Act. The goal of the Voting Rights Act was to prohibit discrimination that many states still routinely practiced with regard to voting. Concluding that the existing 15th Amendment and federal anti-discrimination laws were inadequate to enforce uniform voting rights on a national level, Congress acted at the urging of President Johnson to overcome continued Southern resistance to broad voting rights.
 
The Voting Rights Act (“VRA”) contains some specific provisions that were designed to target areas of the country where discrimination in terms of voting continued to be most problematic. For instance, the VRA provides that a person could not be denied the right to vote based on literacy tests. Likewise, under Section 5 of the VRA, some municipalities and/or jurisdictions were not free to change any aspect of voting rights and freedoms unless the Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia determined that the changes had no discriminatory effects and/or intent. The point of this provision was to single out areas of the country where voting discrimination had remained rampant, despite federal antidiscrimination laws, although the provision, on its face, applies to jurisdiction where less than 50% of the voting age population engages in the voting process. The provision was extended for 25 years in 2006, and is the subject of a lawsuit currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. However, there is a “bailout” provision that allows covered jurisdictions to obtain a declaratory judgment exempting them from Section 5’s requirements, on the basis that no discriminatory voting actions have occurred in the prior ten years, and that the jurisdiction has taken affirmative steps to encourage minority voting.
 
In addition to the provisions of the VRA, by 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court had specifically found poll taxes to be unconstitutional, which broke down another discriminatory barrier for nationwide voting rights. A series of additional court decisions over the next ten years would also prove crucial in continuing to thwart underhanded attempts by certain jurisdictions to undermine the VRA, including outlawing certain structural changes and gerrymandering taken by different voting districts in order to dilute the effectiveness and/or impact of new minority voters. 
 
Furthermore, Congress passed various amendments to the VRA over the years, which only served to strengthen the continued prohibition on discrimination in voting rights.
In 1970 and again in 1975, Congress extended Section 5 of the VRA, based on continued evidence of voting discrimination occurring in many jurisdictions nationwide. The 1975 amendments also added more protection for citizens with language barriers who sought to exercise their right to vote.
 
The most recent set of amendments to the VRA was passed in 1982. These amendments renewed certain provisions of the VRA, and added a provision that a violation of the VRA could be established by a complainant without any showing of discriminatory purpose.
 
In 2006, President George W. Bush extended the VRA for another twenty-five years with its original provisions intact, despite some opposition from conservative lawmakers. In particular, some members of Congress opposed the requirement that jurisdiction with large minority language populations provide bilingual ballots. However, the extension passed with no changes to the substantive text of the VRA. 

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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