History of the VRA: from Landmark to Dead Letter

Maik Miah

1865 — Adoption of 13th Amendment that abolished slavery,

1866 — Civil Rights Act gives citizenship to all born in the United States, although excluding the Indigenous population.

1868 — Ratification of 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves.

1869 — Passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing voting rights to African American males

1896-1960s — In 1896 Louisiana passed the “grandfather clause” as a way of de-registering African Americans through outrageous literacy tests and poll taxes, while exempting whites whose grandfathers voted. Black Louisianans, who were 44.8% of the voters in 1896, by 1900 were four percent. Shortly afterward Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia passed similar laws.

1957 — Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The new act established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and empowered federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote. Southern Dixiecrats made sure the new law did not change the power of the states over voting rights. Civil rights leaders had pushed for a law with teeth on the issue.

1964 — Passage of the 24th amendment, lowering the voting age to 18 and outlawed poll taxes in national elections.

1965 — U.S. Senate passes the Voting Rights Act by 77-19, the House votes by 335-85, and President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law on August 9th, in the presence of civil rights leaders including MLK.

The Voting Rights Act enforced the 15th Amendment, sweeping away state restrictions on voting rights that flourished with the end of Reconstruction (1877).

Of the various sections of the act, Sections 2-5 are the best known. Section 2 prohibited states or political subdivisions from setting prerequisites to the right of citizens to vote on account of race or color.

Section 3 outlines various ways that the U.S. Attorney General, if choosing to intervene to implement voting rights, could precede. This included appointing federal examiners to register voters and suspending tests or practices that impede the right.

Section 4 defines those states with a history of racial discrimination. Section 5 requires those jurisdictions covered to obtain “pre-clearance” from either the District Court for the District of Columbia or the U.S. Attorney General for any new voting practices and procedures.

By the end of the year, 250,000 African American voters had been registered, one third by federal examiners.

1966-69 — The VRA was challenged, but the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the broad range of voting practices for which preclearance was required. This included the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision, Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, which held that Virginia’s poll tax unconstitutional under the 14th amendment. Also, in 1966 the Court ruled, in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, that the Attorney General had the right to appoint federal examiners.

Perhaps most relevant to the recent decision, the Court’s 1969 decision, Allen v. State Board of Elections, held that individuals have the right to legally challenge discriminatory practices under Section 5 of the VRA.

1970, 1975 — Presidents Nixon and Ford each extend the VRA for five years.

1982 — President Reagan extends the VRA for 25 years.

2006 — Congress extends Section 5 of the VRA 25 years. Since 2006, Congress extended the key sections of the Voting Rights Act four times in overwhelming, bipartisan votes.

2013 — In Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court gutted the requirement that nine states with a history of voting discrimination must seek pre-approval for voting changes, declaring this an outdated rule, as well as unconstitutional.

The same day, Texas officials announced that they would implement the nation’s most restrictive voter ID law, which had been blocked in the preclearance process. This law was the first of a wave of policies, passed by states previously subject to pre-clearance.

January-February 2024, ATC 228

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