6 Things to Know About the Voting Rights Act

Freedom, Rights

657704_18090233-1The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices based on race or color. The law has been under a bit of political fire over the last few years; here’s what you need to know.

How It Protects

When the Voting Rights Act was created, it put specific regulations in place that would protect African Americans. For example, the act meant voters didn’t have to pass literacy tests to vote, since African Americans were not offered equal education opportunities with whites.

Multilingual Balloting

Despite opposition against requiring states with large Spanish-speaking populations to provide bilingual ballots, Congress voted in 2006 to uphold the act with no changes, through 2031. The Voting Rights Act requires municipalities that receive requests for ballots in other languages to comply with the request.

Shelby vs. Holder

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is being challenged by Shelby County in Alabama. In question is whether Congress’ decision in 2006 to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution. Under Section 5 of the act, nine states (those with histories of discriminatory voting practices: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) have laws requiring them to get “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice to make any changes in their voting laws. The Supreme Court’s decision is expected in June on whether this pre-clearance will continue to be required.

Voting Rights Can Expire

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was supposed to terminate in 1970. However, it has been renewed four times and is now not scheduled to expire until 2031 — hence Southern States’ frustrations.

Gerry What?

Civil rights activists claim efforts to diminish the effect of African-American votes haven’t improved since 1965. Practices like gerrymandering have continued (redistricting to make certain groups’ votes count differently in terms of electoral votes). In 1982, the Voting Rights Act was amended to encourage the creation of  “majority-minority” districts in order to give black voters the “strength of a bloc.” The plan worked: in 1980, there were only 18 blacks in the U.S. House of Representatives; now, there are 44.

The Statistics

Mississippi — which is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — has the best ratio of African-American to white turnout, while Massachusetts — not covered — has the worst, according to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. While the statistics and their interpretation are questionable (taken from 2004 Census Bureau polls on voting behavior), they raise a good point: times have changed since the introduction of the Voting Rights Act — at least in terms of who might or might not tend to discriminate when changing their voting laws. Racism is not limited to the South, and may not be what it once was in Southern states.  However since 1965, the federal government has objected to voting changes in Mississippi 173 times — 116 of them since the act’s renewal in 1982.  With a black population of 37 percent (the largest in the country by far), Mississippi has had low black representation in Congress and state legislature.  Since the application of section 5, more black lawmakers have been elected in the state.

It is still debated whether any state’s voting law changes should be overseen by the federal government.

Supporters Aren’t Happy

While Section 5 is considered outdated by many — an infringement on state sovereignty and unfair punishment for the South for its past — there is still much evidence to suggest that voting rights need to remain protected in one way or another. While many want to protect Section 5, President Obama says it’s not the only tool to protect voting rights.  While our black president thinks the Supreme Court should uphold Section 5, he assures voters that the nation’s voting laws will be fixed.  The president called for a voting commission to fix the nation’s voting laws.  At any right, the voting rights battle is far from over.