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The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Written by Caroline Petersen, Summer 2015 Intern

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act

No one who is aware of basic American history can deny that the United States has always been discriminatory in whom it allows the freedom and liberty it claims to give its citizens. Minorities who were considered “lesser” citizens had their rights trampled and their voices silenced, to the point where many were barred from exercising one of the most fundamental rights in a democratic society: the right to vote. Black citizens after the Civil War were greatly hindered when trying to vote, having to pass bogus tests, needing to meet education and literacy requirements, and sometimes having to pay poll taxes.

The Grandfather Clause, which required a citizen to have a father or grandfather who had voted prior to January 1st, 1867 in order to vote, completely disenfranchised all free black citizens until it was nullified by the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. Black voters faced such obstacles well into the Civil Rights movement, leading to nationwide protests that called for federal protection of the voting rights of all citizens.

On March 7th, 1965, a voting-rights protest was set to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. However, state police disrupted the protest march, fatally shot a young black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson, trampled protesters while riding horseback, and set off tear gas on crowds of people. The event was heavily publicized, shocking the nation, and it became known as Bloody Sunday. The atrocity prompted President Lyndon Johnson to address Congress on national television and urge lawmakers to adopt legislation that would protect the voting rights of all citizens.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 became a landmark piece of legislation put in place to prevent voter disenfranchisement. The Voting Rights Act was amended several times, mostly involving the reauthorizing of certain special provisions. In 1970, Section 4 of the act, called the coverage formula, was reauthorized for 5 more years, and the act was amended to place a nationwide ban on all “tests and devices” that hindered voting. In 1975, the coverage formula was reauthorized for 7 more years, the ban on “tests and devices” was made permanent, and protections were put in place for language minorities.

In 1980, the act was amended to prohibit voting practices that had a discriminatory effect, as opposed to the prior law that only banned practices that could be proved to have a discriminatory purpose. In 1982, language minority protections were resigned for 15 years, and in 2006, President George W. Bush resigned the act and reauthorized language minority protections for 25 years and expanded prohibitions on voting changes and redistricting practices. The highly contested portion of the act is Section 4, the coverage formula, which requires “preclearance,” or federal approval, before districts with a history of disenfranchisement can make any changes in their voting practices.

The Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized several times since the act’s adoption in 1965; but in 2013, in the Shelby County v. Holder case, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4, deeming the coverage formula to be “unconstitutional.” In 2014, there were calls for a new coverage formula to be devised so that districts bent on voter discrimination cannot “pull the wool” over citizens’ eyes and hinder their abilities to exercise their rights. However, some lawmakers are resisting, wanting to prevent certain citizens from voting to secure their own positions of power. New laws are being introduced that disproportionately affect demographics who typically vote Democrat, such as laws requiring picture I.D. to vote and gerrymandering practices that divide usually Democratic districts and add the pieces onto typically Republican districts. Some of our (Republican) legislators are taking the country back in time for the sake of retaining their positions of power.

The Voting Rights Act was crucial to attaining civil rights for all Americans, and it has not lost its relevance in the slightest. There must be calls for federally protected rights and equality among citizens. We must push our legislators to reauthorize this crucial portion of the Voting Rights Act and prohibit bogus practices that are said to prevent the nonexistent “epidemic” of voter fraud, but in reality disenfranchise and target certain groups of citizens. The right to vote is a right that was fought for by minority citizens, and these shady political games can’t erase history.

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Caroline Peterson

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