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Voting Rights

The United States government is famously by the people, for the people, and of the people. This country was founded on the principle of self-governance, and the main way most people exercise their right to self-governance is by voting for the people or the propositions that best represent their values. Unfortunately, the course of U.S. history is full of examples in which people were prevented from voting because of their race, gender, or economic class. And this isn't a linear path, as efforts to both expand and curtail voting rights continue to this day. This section contains information about the laws that were passed to ensure that everyone gets to exercise their right to vote and enjoy the liberties of self-governance.

A Brief History of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to reverse the voter disenfranchisement of racial minorities (particularly African-Americans) that had plagued the nation since its inception. Much of the voter suppression tactics side stepped anti-discrimination laws by requiring would-be voters to take tests that tangentially (if not overtly) eliminated minority voters. But overt acts of violence were still common. One of the key events that persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to take action was the violent attack by Alabama state troopers on a peaceful marchers in the city of Selma in 1965. Johnson urged Congress to pass what would come to be called the Voting Rights Act.

The Act was strengthened through amendments in 1970 and 1975, and then again in 1982. The 1982 amendment, for example, allowed plaintiffs to claim violations under the Act without having to prove a specific discriminatory intent.

But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Section 4 in 2013 (Shelby County v. Holder), thereby eliminating the formula for determining which states had to seek approval before passing new voting laws. As a result, Section 5 (which relies on Section 4) was effectively thrown out as well. The Court's message in the ruling was that the Voting Rights Act had already achieved its goals, while critics (including Justice Ginsburg) argued that voter suppression in southern states is still a major problem.

Federal Voter ID Law: The Help America Vote Act

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002, was intended to shore up the security of elections by requiring would-be voters to show identification when registering to vote. The types of identification approved by HAVA include a state-issued driver's license, military identification, passport, or even utility bills. The Act applies only to those who are registering for the first time (after 2002) or re-registering in a different location. Voters who fail to provide the necessary ID may still vote, but their ballots will be considered "provisional" and not counted until they are able to prove their identification.

Many states, meanwhile, require specific or multiple forms of ID in order to register or even to vote once registered. Critics argue that these regulations are intended to dissuade certain demographics from voting, particularly racial minorities and low-income individuals.

Learn more about voting rights and the applicable federal laws by clicking on a link below.

Learn About Voting Rights