How the Voting Rights Act Protects Against Discrimination in the Voting Process
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 delivered on the promise that all Americans are entitled to participate in democracy equally. It prohibited racial discrimination in voting procedures and laws and required governments with a disenfranchisement history to preapprove election rule changes.
Since the Supreme Court invalidated its core provisions in 2013, state and local officials have brazenly pushed through a rash of discriminatory voter laws. We’re fighting back.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, states and localities with a history of discrimination have to ask federal authorities — either the Justice Department or a three-judge panel of the District Court for the District of Columbia — to “preclear” any change in their election laws. In addition, Section 2 prohibits voting districts from being drawn in a way that dilutes minority voters’ power. Two typical forms of vote dilution involve cracking (splitting a community between several election districts) or packing (squeezing a minority community into tiny election districts).
Under the decision, there are only 13 jurisdictions still covered by Section 5. The law applies to Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas; some local governments in California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, New York, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
Activists are pushing to restore preclearance by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bipartisan bill that would amend the VRA with a new coverage formula that looks at more modern discrimination issues. In addition, the bill establishes procedures for state and local governments to submit changes for preclearance, requires that federal observers monitor elections, and provides more notice and transparency opportunities for voters. You can read the bill’s full text about Voting Rights Act 2022.
The Voting Rights Act ensures that voters can register and vote without fear of discrimination. It requires States to keep voter registration records confidential, except for election officials acting within the scope of their official duties. It also requires polling places to be accessible for people with disabilities and involves election systems to accommodate the needs of those using alternative languages.
The Act prohibits “covered jurisdictions” from changing their voting rules without getting approval from the federal government or a three-judge panel of the District Court of the District of Columbia. Currently, the Act covers eight States and large parts of two more.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013, several States have brazenly pushed forward laws that make it harder for some people to vote. These include changes to electoral districts that disadvantage select groups of voters, more onerous voter ID requirements, and a range of other restrictive laws.
In the past, such barriers to voting have disproportionately affected people of color. Research shows that, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Black employment in State government increased by about 3.8 percentage points, and wages in these jobs were significantly higher than those of whites. Voting rights advocates have also documented that the Act narrowed the black/white wage gap by raising wages and improving school quality in the counties covered by Section 5. This effect may have facilitated the rise of unions, linked to higher wages for black workers.
A vital part of the Voting Rights Act was requiring states with a history of discrimination to get approval from federal officials before changing their voting laws or procedures (this is called “preclearance”). These provisions were initially set for five years but were later extended again and again, by both Democratic and Republican presidents, until 2006.
The law also banned literacy tests at polling places and required local governments to provide language assistance to voters who didn’t speak English. It made it illegal to use voter intimidation and other tactics to deter people from voting and required that election officers be trained in federal civil rights law. The Voting Rights Act also made it illegal to direct people to show photo ID to vote or to impose other barriers to the ballot box. It required that polling places be accessible to people with disabilities.
Multiple studies have found that the Voting Rights Act significantly reduced poverty and inequality in America by raising wages through higher electoral turnout and reducing the wage gap between Black and white workers. However, the Supreme Court’s recent decision (2013) and Democratic National Committee (2021) have made it more difficult for voters to challenge state and local voting laws that burden people disproportionately, especially voters of color and those in rural areas.
Since 1965, the Voting Rights Act has had a massive impact on dismantling discriminatory voting barriers. Its most potent enforcement tool, Section 5, required states with histories of racial discrimination in their elections to preclear any changes to their voting rules or laws with the federal government or a court in Washington, DC.
Before the passage of the Act, election officials in many states and local jurisdictions used literacy tests, poll taxes, quotas, and other discriminatory practices to keep Black voters from participating in the political process. They even broke up the vote of a single minority community by “cracking” it into multiple election districts so that its voices could not influence any district’s election results.
After Congress passed the Act in 1965, many brave and passionate Americans marched, were arrested, and even died to work toward the day everyone would be allowed to vote without being discriminated against. This was a challenging process, but it worked, and it was successful enough to be reauthorized four times by Congress and approved by the Supreme Court.
The Justice Department’s new proposed rule, the Freedom to Vote Act (FTV: JRLA), builds on this history of success in a four-part way. First, it reauthorizes and strengthens Section 5’s coverage formula by incorporating current conditions to ensure that states and localities with the worst records of discrimination must preclear any changes to their voting rules.
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