DemDaily: What is the Voting Rights Act?

August 8, 2023

Sunday marked the 58th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in modern US history.

More than half a century later, however, those rights have been significantly weakened by both the courts and an unprecedented number of laws passed in Republican-controlled legislatures across the country.

"The fight to defend the right to vote begins with understanding where we've been and knowing where we are now." -- Voting Rights Activist Stacey Abrams

History
The Voting Rights Act, passed on August 6, 1965, prohibits racial discrimination in voting and was designed to enforce the voting rights of racial minorities guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The landmark legislation came out of the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s that witnessed mass resistance to decades of oppression and discrimination against African-Americans at home and the ballot box.

From the firebombing of black churches across the South and deaths of three Mississippi volunteers during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, to the brutal beatings of activists during the peaceful voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March of 1965, Americans grew outraged at the violence sweeping the country.

Lyndon B. Johnson, who assumed the presidency following the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, had been re-elected by a landslide in 1964 and made enshrining voting rights a mandate of his administration.

Johnson crafted legislation banning election practices that denied the right to vote based on race, and required jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to get federal approval for changes in their election laws before they could take effect.

In a passionate speech to a joint session of Congress in March of 1965, Johnson called for comprehensive voting rights legislation, saying, "I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy."

Five months later, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders present, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law, calling it "A triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield." By the end of 1965, a quarter-million new African-American voters had been registered.

In the ensuing decades, various discriminatory practices were still used to prevent minorities from exercising their right to vote. Congress passed major amendments extending the VRA's protections in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006.

Erosion of Rights
In 2013, however, the US Supreme Court, ruling 5-4 in Shelby v. Holder, struck down the federal pre-clearance provision under Article 5 of the VRA that required states with histories of pernicious discrimination to receive federal approval before adopting maps or enacting voting laws.

Those states included Alabama, Arizona, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as counties and townships in other states.

The majority opinion in Shelby v. Holder, delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by the court's four other conservative justices, reasoned the disparate treatment of the states is "based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day."

The ruling opened the floodgates, ushering in a wave of state efforts to restrict voting rights. Although several bills were introduced in Congress to reinstate critical safeguards, including the 2014 and 2015 Voting Rights Amendment Act, they did not progress beyond the committee level.

After the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, attacks against voting rights increased exponentially. A 2018 report by the bipartisan US Commission on Civil Rights found that at least 23 states enacted restrictive voter laws that made it harder for minorities to vote, including closing of over a thousand polling places nationwide in predominantly African-American counties.

In 2019, the Democratic-controlled US House passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act to reinstate the pre-clearance requirements, but it was blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate amid threats of a Trump veto.

In July 2021, in a 6-3 decision along ideological lines, the US Supreme Court further eroded the VRA's remaining protections, holding in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee that two Arizona voting laws were not racially discriminatory under the Fifteenth Amendment and Section Two of the Voting Rights Act.

The court also rewrote the guidelines for Section Two -- which stipulates that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” -- making it more difficult to challenge prejudicial voting laws.

Hanging In the Balance
On June 8, 2023, in a surprise 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the last vestiges of Section Two, ruling in favor of Black voters in an Alabama congressional redistricting case.

In Allen v. Milligan, the court ruled that the state's new Republican-drawn congressional districts violated the VRA by diluting the voting power of Black residents in a gerrymandered map that included only one majority-Black district out of seven in a state that is 27% Black.

SCOTUS sent the state back to the drawing board, ordering it to follow the lower district court ruling that required “two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something very close.”

Nevertheless, on June 20, Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature and GOP Governor Kay Ivey defied the court's mandate, submitting a plan that shifts the Black voting-age population threshold in two seats without creating a clear second Black-majority district.

Their action sent the fight back to federal court, with significant ramifications for other state redistricting and voting rights cases. The same three-judge panel that struck down the previous map has set an August 14 hearing on the new plan.

DemList will keep you informed.

Related
DemDaily: Alabama v. The Voting Rights Act 7/25/23
DemDaily: Supreme Court Strikes Down GOP Election Doctrine 6/27/23
DemDaily: Supreme Court Upholds Voting Rights Act Foundation 6/13/23

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Sources: Bennan Center, SCOTUSBlog, New York Times, History.com, US Congress

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