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Voting Rights History & Law

The right to vote -- one of the most valued rights in the country -- has been challenged throughout the history of the United States. Prior to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), there had been much tension between what the law stated regarding fundamental voting rights and the actual ability to vote. The Voting Rights Act, a crowning achievement of civil rights legislation, opened up voting rights for millions of voters of color. The VRA prohibits discrimination in voting practices on the basis of race and color. It was extended in 1975 to include protections for language minority citizens and also contains provisions for the disabled.

Early Voting Rights History

In the early history of the United States, the Constitution did not provide protection for voting rights, but Constitutional amendments did offer these protections. The 15th amendment established that the right to vote could not be denied due to race, color, or previous servitude and therefore granted the right to vote to African American males. However, this did not include African American females because no women of any background were granted the right to vote until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The nation (particularly in the South) resisted efforts by African Americans to assert their voting rights using both illegal and legal means. Extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan intimidated and threatened African American voters, while some state governments enacted laws that prevented African Americans from voting. For instance, many states required potential voters to pass a literacy test before they could vote. Because the literacy tests also excluded many poor white Americans from voting, grandfather clauses were used to specifically target African Americans.

An even more direct way of trampling African Americans' right to vote was the practice of Southern states to hold white primaries, elections where only white voters were allowed to vote. The U.S. Supreme Court held that these white primaries were unconstitutional, but the disenfranchisement of African Americans continued with other discriminatory practices such as poll taxes.

Voting Rights in the Civil Rights Movement

The chronic violation of voting rights was addressed by the Civil Rights Movement. By including this as a major part of the civil rights agenda, the movement got the attention of Congress which enacted voting rights legislation during this period. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created both the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice and the Commission on Civil Rights; and also authorized the Attorney General to sue for injunctive relief on behalf of persons whose 15th Amendment rights had been violated. The 1960 act allowed federal courts to appoint voting referees to conduct voter registration in jurisdictions where voter discrimination occurred.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a major step towards equality for all Americans, included a voting rights provision (Title I) which prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements. Even with these advances, disenfranchisement for minority voters persisted. Civil rights activists continued emphasizing voting rights by having voter registration drives and protests. Much of the action centered on Selma, Alabama.

Selma to Montgomery Marches

There had already been numerous protests and marches in Selma before the famous Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 had occurred. On February 17, 1965 during a protest, an activist, Jimmy Lee Jackson had been shot. He died days later from his injuries. This led to the marches, which were intended to be nonviolent protests, but the Selma Sheriff James Clark greatly opposed the march and responded with violence. Not only were the protestors victims of an unprovoked attack by law enforcement, but many other acts of violence occurred during this time, including some fatalities. The national attention and general outcry against these events helped to get the Voting Acts Right enacted.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The VRA, as enacted in 1965, contains special provisions that apply to certain jurisdictions and general provisions that apply nationwide.

General Provisions of the VRA

Section 2 is a general provision banning voting laws that discriminate against racial and language minorities. Another general provision specifically bans discriminatory practices that were used to prevent racial minorities from voting such as literacy tests, but not poll taxes although the act does direct the Attorney General to contest the use of poll taxes. However, the 24th Amendment enacted in 1964 finally ended the poll tax.

Special Provisions of the VRA

The VRA contains a special provision requiring certain jurisdictions to provide bilingual voting materials and ballots. Section 5 contains a special provision that forces certain jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination to get voting rights laws cleared with the federal government before the laws can be changed. Section 4 created a special formula to determine the coverage for the provisions of Section 5. However, the United States Supreme Court overturned Section 4 in the Shelby v. Holder case.

Protect your Voting Rights

Has someone interfered with your voting rights by denying you access to the polling place or by trying to dilute your voting power? If you think that your voting rights have been violated, talk to an attorney who can help you understand the complexities of voting rights. You can go to the Findlaw directory for a civil rights attorney in your area.

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