50 Years of the Voting Rights Act: Why We Still Need It Today

August 28, 2015

It can be easy for many of us to take for granted that if you are an American citizen and 18 or older, you can vote for our nation's leaders. But the right of every US citizen to make their voices heard has been a long-fought battle. Even after the 15th Amendment carved that right into the Constitution in 1965, southern states found ways to make it effectively impossible for black voters to cast a ballot. Fifty years ago, the Voting Rights Act passed measures that provided broad protections against such disenfranchisement.

Woody coming out of a voting booth

The Voting Rights Act would go on to become one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation, opening the door for generations of black voters to make their mark on American politics. But while we cheer on this anniversary, recent Supreme Court rulings have stripped the most effective parts from the Voting Rights Act, leading to a new wave of racial biases at the polls. Here’s what’s so important about this landmark piece of legislation, and why we still need it, in full force, today.

Why is the Voting Rights Act So Important?

Despite the 15th Amendment, the right of black voters to cast their ballot in the 1960s was stymied across the South in various ways. With no federal oversight, the methods were as systemic as a poll tax and impassible literacy tests, and as violent as physical intimidation and beatings. But as the Civil Rights Movement lit up the news with police and state troopers clashing against unarmed marchers, President Lyndon Johnson navigated a political tightrope, signing into law the bipartisan supported Voting Rights Act in 1965. The tensions were high enough in the South that Johnson had to send federal workers to manage voter registration.

The Voting Rights Act did away with discriminatory practices like literacy tests. But its strongest power, Section 5, required that states with histories of these practices submit any new changes to their election procedures for federal review. The results were immediate, and effectively altered the political fabric of the United States— within the states judged to have the worst cases of disenfranchisement, black voter registration nearly doubled in the next two years. Decades later, the ‘black vote’ is still an integral part of major political campaigns, with black votership nearly equal to white in the 2008 election of the nation’s first black president.

What Changed?

The first 48 years of the Voting Rights Act were successful, as it was used to defend against discriminatory election practices. It was even reauthorized for another 25 years in 2006, despite conservative objections that Section 5 amounted to a broad overstepping of federal powers into states’ rights (sound familiar?).

Things changed in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the act, which designated which states needed to have their election procedure changes reviewed by the federal government. Without that designation, Section 5 became essentially useless. That opened the door for those states to once again affect their own election procedures, without federal oversight. Even as the majority ruling declared “things have changed dramatically” in the South, those same states are using the opportunity to roll back many of the protections that the Voting Rights Act put into place. Nearly immediately, North Carolina effected a broad restructuring of the state’s voting laws that civil rights groups say are discriminatory— leading to a lawsuit that could hold the future of the Voting Rights Act in the balance.

The Voting Rights Act still exists. But instead of states submitting new election procedures for federal preclearance, individual plaintiffs have to bring a case to court, and bear the burden of proof.

Who's Being Targeted?

“Target” is a loaded word. But with modern polling and data gathering, we know a huge amount about who votes when and where. In the North Carolina case, the new election law rolled back multiple forms of registration known to be used by black and minority voters. Across the nation, multiple states have passed voter ID laws, under the guise stopping voter fraud, even though its been shown to be nearly non-existent. Practically, the expense and time needed to obtain an ID often prevents minorities from voting, and before 2013, the Voting Rights Act had been used to overturn voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina. The statistical evidence is that states with higher black votership are more likely to restrict voting.

What’s at Stake?

It’s hard to ignore the fact that voting laws by nature have an effect on political outcomes, and we now have a two-term Democratic president on the way out. And we’ve already seen how new voter laws proliferated after the Republicans grabbed a large win in the 2010 state elections. You could say that elections are at stake, but the Voting Rights Act— which was born as bipartisan legislation— should mean more than that. What’s at stake is how can we make voting rights an issue that all parties can agree on. Check out how the NAACP is giving us a voice for change with America’s Journey for Justice, a historic 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC with a civil rights agenda that includes unfettered access to the polls for all Americans.