The Voting Rights Act of 1965 - Overview

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The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in response to Jim Crow laws and other restrictions of minorities' voting rights at the time, primarily in the Deep South. The Act has undergone several changes and additions since its passage, but the U.S. Supreme Court found a key provision of the Act unconstitutional in 2013.

The 1965 Enactment

By 1965, civil rights activists had been working for years to obtain voting rights for all Americans, but had only achieved minimal success. However, the murder of activists in Mississippi and Philadelphia, as well as numerous other acts of violence and terrorism, captured national attention and propelled the movement forward.

On March 7, 1965, in an event that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," state troopers descended on peaceful protestors in an unprovoked attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama where protestors were en route to the state capital in Montgomery. In response to this event and other acts of violence, President Johnson called for effective voting rights legislation. Subsequently, hearings began on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act.

The hearings showed that the Justice Department's efforts to eliminate discriminatory election practices by litigation on a case-by-case basis had been unsuccessful in opening up the registration process.

The VRA was enacted on August 6, 1965. Section 2 of the Act applied a nationwide prohibition on literacy tests. The Act also contained special provisions targeted at those areas of the country with histories of racial discrimination.

Under Section 5, jurisdictions covered by these special provisions could not make any voting rights law changes without preclearance from the federal government. In addition, the Attorney General could designate a county covered by these special provisions for the appointment of a federal examiner to review the qualifications of persons who wanted to register to vote. Further, in those counties where a federal examiner was serving, the Attorney General could request that federal observers monitor activities within the county's polling place.

The Voting Rights Act did not include a provision prohibiting poll taxes, but had directed the Attorney General to challenge its use. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), the Supreme Court held Virginia's poll tax to be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Between 1965 and 1969 the Supreme Court also issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 and affirming the broad range of voting practices that required Section 5 review.

The 1970 and 1975 Amendments

Congress extended Section 5 for five years in 1970 and for seven years in 1975. With these extensions, Congress validated the Supreme Court's broad interpretation of the scope of Section 5. During the hearings Congress heard extensive testimony concerning gerrymandering, annexations, adoption of at-large elections, and other structural changes to prevent newly-registered black voters from effectively using the ballot. Congress also heard extensive testimony about voting discrimination that had been suffered by Hispanic, Asian and Native American citizens, and the 1975 amendments added protections from voting discrimination for language minority citizens.

In 1973, the Supreme Court held certain legislative multi-member districts unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment on the ground that they systematically diluted the voting strength of minority citizens in Bexar County, Texas. This decision in White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755 (1973), strongly shaped litigation through the 1970s against at-large systems and gerrymandered redistricting plans. In Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980), however, the Supreme Court required that any constitutional claim of minority vote dilution must include proof of a racially discriminatory purpose, a requirement that was widely seen as making such claims far more difficult to prove.

The 1982 Amendments

Congress renewed in 1982 the special provisions of the Act, triggered by coverage under Section 4 for twenty-five years. Congress also adopted a new standard, which went into effect in 1985, providing how jurisdictions could terminate (or "bail out" from) coverage under the provisions of Section 4. Furthermore, after extensive hearings, Congress amended Section 2 to provide that a plaintiff could establish a violation of the Section without having to prove discriminatory purpose.

The 2013 Supreme Court Ruling

In a 5-4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act had achieved its main purpose (Shelby County v. Holder). Specifically, the Court overturned Section 4 of the Act, which laid out the formula for determining which states had to seek approval prior to enacting new voting laws. While Section 5 specifically addresses this requirement, the ruling on Section 4 renders Section 5 ineffective. Critics of the ruling, including Justice Ginsburg, argue that attempts to restrict minority voting in many southern states is still rampant, citing efforts in many states to redraw district maps in order to minimize the will of minorities.

Justices in the majority, however, claim that the special requirements for certain states are based on information from the 1960s. Therefore, the Court left the door open for Congress to update the Act by coming up with a new formula that complies with the 2013 ruling.

Defend Your Voting Rights

Although the Voting Rights Act has evolved, it is still a pivotal source for protecting our right to vote. Have your voting rights been threatened by voter dilution or inaccessibility? Defend your rights by talking to a civil rights attorney. Check the Findlaw directory for an attorney in your area.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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