Voting Rights Act 50th Anniversary Renews Debate

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President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act along with Martin Luther King Jr.
Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, “Signing of the Voting Rights Act” lbjlibrary.net, Aug. 6, 1965

The US Voting Rights Act, which outlawed legal barriers preventing African American voters from casting ballots, was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, and one day after a federal appeals court ruled that a Texas law violates part of the act, its legacy is being debated by figures from across the political spectrum.

The Voting Rights Act was signed almost a century after the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, which declared that the right to vote must not be denied by the federal government or by any state “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite having been granted the constitutional right to vote, the ability for African Americans to exercise that right was infringed by numerous laws enacted in southern states after the Civil War, including requirements to pass literacy tests, the introduction of poll taxes and vouchers of “good character,” and the barring of black voters for supposed “crimes of moral turpitude.” Following the 15th Amendment’s ratification in 1870, the percentage of eligible black voters in Mississippi who were registered to vote dropped from 90% to about 6% in 1892. The percentage of voting-age blacks in the south who were registered to vote dropped to about 3% by 1940.

The burgeoning civil rights movement fought to oppose such disenfranchisement laws during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The efforts culminated on Mar. 7, 1965, when a planned march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama was disrupted when the protesters were confronted by state troopers, who fired tear gas into the crowd and attacked the marchers with nightsticks and whips. The national attention garnered by the incident hastened the progress of the nascent Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson five months later. Within one year, 302,000 previously disenfranchised Americans were registered to vote.

One of the act’s stipulations was that so-called “special coverage” states (states with a history of discrimination against African American voters) were required to secure “pre-clearance” from the federal government before making changes to their election or voting processes. This requirement was ruled unconstitutional and no longer necessary by the US Supreme Court on June 25, 2013. The ruling was controversial, and its implications are still being fiercely debated as the Voting Rights Act turns 50.

Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, stated in an Aug. 6, 2015 op-ed that “As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we should also celebrate the Supreme Court’s recent treatment of its protections… Based on 40-year-old voting data that don’t reflect current political conditions, this provision [the pre-clearance requirement] subjected a seemingly random assortment of states and localities to onerous unusual federal oversight.”

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, several states have enacted voter ID laws and other measures that some see as renewed efforts to suppress the minority vote. On Aug. 5, 2015, the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Texas’ voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against African American and Latino voters. The law prohibited people from voting if they could not show an approved government-issued photo ID. There was no exception for people who could not afford an ID, and government employee IDs and IDs from state colleges were not acceptable under the law.

President Barack Obama, lauding the Voting Rights Act on its anniversary in an article on the White House website, wrote that in 2013 “the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the law, which has allowed a number of states to change their voting laws without having to comply with the important procedural protections put in place to safeguard against discrimination.”

Some people assert that the Voting Rights Act applies to felon disenfranchisement laws. Sonia Sotomayor, when she was Circuit Judge of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote that “It is plain to anyone reading the Voting Rights Act that it applies to all ‘voting qualification[s].’ And it is equally plain that [New York Election Law] § 5-106 [which denies the vote to incarcerated felons and felons on parole] disqualifies a group of people from voting.”

Sources:

Ari Berman, “Why the Voting Rights Act Is Once Again under Threat,” nytimes.com, Aug. 6, 2015

Jennifer L. Clark, “Bittersweet Victory in Texas on 50th Anniversary of Voting Rights Act,” msnbc.com, Aug. 6, 2015

James C. Cobb, “The Voting Rights Act at 50: How It Changed the World,” time.com, Aug. 6, 2015

Library of Congress, “Primary Documents in American History: 15th Amendment to the Constitution,” loc.gov (accessed Aug. 6, 2015)

Barack Obama, “50 Years After the Voting Rights Act, We Still Have Work to Do,” whitehouse.gov, Aug. 6, 2015

Maya Rhodan, “The Voting Rights Act at 50: How the Law Came to Be,” time.com, Aug. 6, 2015

Ilya Shapiro, “The Voting Rights Act Is a Grand Success!,” washingtonexaminer.com, Aug. 6, 2015

Sonia Sotomayor, dissenting opinion in Hayden v. Pataki, May 4, 2006

United States Department of Justice, “Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws,” justice.gov (accessed Aug. 6, 2015)

Voting Rights Act, “Voting Rights Act,” history.com (accessed Aug. 6, 2015)