Voting Rights Act of 1965

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Shannon Furtak

There is nothing quite like an election year to make social gatherings heated and uncomfortable. Political opinions are often deeply rooted and are nearly always unchangeable. Avoid the next big blowout, along with any mention of Clinton or Trump, and instead discuss an important historical aspect of the federal election process: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Fifteenth Constitutional Amendment prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Despite this, between 1868 and the 1950s, southern states took measures to suppress the African-American vote by passing legislation to create voter restrictions, including literacy tests, poll taxes, and property ownership requirements. During this time frame, the Supreme Court upheld voter discrimination against racial minorities. Giles v. Harris, a case decided in 1903, stated that the Court did not have the power to force states to register racial minorities to vote.

The civil rights movement forced the federal government to address minorities' voting rights. A series of acts were passed:

  • Civil Rights Act of 1957: This Act authorized the U.S. Attorney General to issue injunctions on behalf of those deprived of their Fifteenth Amendment rights.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1960: This Act allowed federal courts to appoint referees to register voters in jurisdictions discriminating against racial minorities.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: In response to the prevalence of discrimination against racial minorities in government services and public accommodations, this Act was passed. It included some protections of voting rights, among other provisions.

Due to loopholes in prior legislation, combined with difficulty encountered by the government as it attempted to pursue litigation in matters of discrimination, the African-American voter registration rate improved only marginally. President Lyndon B. Johnson quietly encouraged the creation of a tougher voting rights bill. This, in concurrence with an increase in unrest among civil rights organizations, eventually led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In key provisions of this Act:

  • Racial discrimination was officially banned in voting nationwide
  • Literacy tests were banned nationwide
  • Certain jurisdictions were required to clear proposed changed in voting or election procedures with the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
  • Certain jurisdictions were required to provide assistance in languages other than English to voters not literate or fluent in English
  • The U.S. Attorney General was given the power to send federal examiners and observers to monitor elections

The full text of all public laws discussed above are linked and available in the U.S. Statutes at Large library. Compiled legislative histories are available in the U.S. Federal Legislative History Library as follows:

Legislative histories contain the full text of each public law, various bill versions, congressional debates, committee reports, and more, and are helpful in determining legislative intent and for clarifying ambiguous statutory language.

A search for "Voting Rights Act of 1965" in the Law Journal Library produces more than 6,100 results, which can then be refined using the facets on the left side of the page. Sort by most cited articles and view matching text highlighted in yellow, access articles and cases* that cite a current article, download an instant PDF of the article, or email the article to another use as a direct PDF link:

*Access to cited by case information available for Fastcase premium subscribers.

Though it was passed more than 50 years ago, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has had an impact on recent elections, as recounted in these examples. A key provision of the Act was overturned in the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder: the Court invalidated the formula used to determine which states are covered by Section 5 of the Act, making it possible for jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to change voting rules without federal approval. Subsequently, in January 2014, February 2015, and June 2015, bills were introduced to restore the protections removed in Shelby v. Holder. As of today, the Voting Rights Advancement Act has not yet been passed. A search for this Act in the U.S. Congressional Documents collection produces results from just several weeks ago, reflecting the ongoing discussion:

Stay tuned as we follow the progress of this new Act, and for more tips on how to avoid political conflict at your next social gathering. For help searching or navigating in HeinOnline, contact our dedicated support team at (800) 277-6995, email us, or chat with us!

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