The Voting Rights Act was signed into law 49 years ago this week. On Aug. 6, 1965, former President Lyndon B. Johnson signed this landmark piece of civil rights legislation that struck down roadblocks to Americans’ right to vote.
Despite the rights protected by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, many minority citizens eligible to cast a ballot, particularly Southern black Americans, were denied the opportunity to vote. Poll taxes, literacy tests, physical violence and other reprisals kept them from the voting booths.
Spurred by the civil rights movement and several well-publicized, much-decried incidents in which civil rights protestors were attacked by law enforcement and the public, Johnson secured legislation from Congress that made obstacles to voting illegal. The result: the Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests, enabled the attorney general to challenge poll taxes and implemented federal examiners who had the authority to register voters in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination.
In addition, the act called for the attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to clear any new voting practices or restrictions by states with a record of discrimination.
While pieces of the act have been challenged, it has ultimately proven effective. By the end of 1965, 250,000 new black voters were registered; over 50 percent of African Americans living in 9 of 13 Southern states had registered to vote by the end of the following year.
Any legislation that restricts state rights is rife for challenge, and the Voting Rights Act is no exception. Section 5 of the act, which requires federal approval of any new voting laws in states with a legacy of voter discrimination, was originally set to expire in 1970 but has been renewed until 2031.
In addition, the constitutionality of bilingual ballots, the use of photo ID for voters – something often deemed discriminatory to minorities and the elderly who may lack the proper paperwork and documents to secure things like a driver’s license – and the need for employee time off to vote are new wrinkles in the legislation first penned nearly 50 years ago.