The Voting Rights Act of 1965 or VRA was signed into law by LBJ, President Lyndon B. Johnson, on August 6, 1965. It was intended to enforce the 15th Amendment of the Constitution that gave all men regardless of race or prior condition of servitude (former slaves) the right to vote.
Section 5 of the VRA required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination against blacks to receive approval from the federal government before redrawing state and Congressional district lines.
Reasons Why the Voting Rights Act Was Passed
After the Reconstruction ended, many states enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, disenfranchisement of convicted criminals, threats and sometimes violence to prevent blacks from voting. Prior to the Voting Rights Act, the federal government could not challenge state or local laws that enacted these requirements on voting.
Another matter addressed by the Voting Rights Act was the deliberate lack of polling places in predominately black areas and automatic approval of voting registrants who had parents and grandparents who voted.
Evolution of the Voting Rights Act
The VRA was amended to state that jurisdictions with a large number of voters who had limited or no English skills had to be provided with voting materials in assistance in their native language in addition to assistance provided to those who speak English but might need help voting, such as the blind. This was part of Section 4 and Section 203 of the VRA.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was limited in 1980 by the Supreme Court ruling City of Mobile vs. Bolden. The Supreme Court ruling stated that a plaintiff had to show that a government policy or procedure was deliberately discriminatory. Disparate impacts on blacks, for matters such as disenfranchisement of felons while blacks are several times more likely to commit crimes and be sent to prison, are not sufficient basis for a suit under the VRA.
The law was renewed by Congress in 1982. The renewal of the law included a provision that said that it wasn’t necessary to prove discriminatory action on the part of the sued party, that practices could be challenged whether or not a practice was deliberately discriminatory. Another amendment in 1982 allowed those who were blind, disabled or illiterate to be aided in voting by anyone of their choice, not just poll workers.
In the Supreme Court decision Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board, the court said that the federal government could pre-approve changes made to jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the VRA, limiting subsequent challenges that might be issued to the resulting procedural changes.
Related Court Decisions and Legislation
The Supreme Court case Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections in 1966 found that the poll tax of the state of Virginia was unconstitutional per the 14th Amendment. Between 1965 and 1969, several court cases found that Section 5 of the Voting Rights act was constitutional.
In 2003, the case Georgia vs. Ashcroft was decided to state that pre-clearance under Section 5 was allowed if the overall influence of minority voters wasn’t diminished, even if their ability to elect candidates was. The decision in this case was that the creation of “safe” minority-majority districts is not a federal priority under the VRA, especially when other districts in the state could vote for minority candidates or where the new districts tended to follow the voting patterns of the prior ones. Officially, drawing Congressional district lines on a racial basis is illegal, but drawing it to the advantage of one party or another (Democratic, in this case) while diluting racial voting blocks was not considered a violation of the Voting Rights Act.