The Continued Battle for Voter Equality

Five Most Important Changes of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

1) Eliminated Poll Tax for Voting;

2) Eliminated Literacy Tests for Voting;

3) Struck down Grand-father Clauses;

4) Forbid Whites only Primaries;

5) Granted Federal Oversight to Local Voting Regulations.

Legal barriers to voting have existed in this country since it was founded, and unfortunately, continue to exist to this day. The voting rights act of 1965 was significant legislation to overcome many historical barriers that discriminated against minority voters. This discriminatory pattern dates back to the founding of our country.  Shortly after the Civil War ( 1861 to 1865)  the states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment that guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied “ on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Unfortunately,  the still Confederate south was not amiable to following the newly enacted laws. As a result, Congress continued to act enact legislation that made it a federal crime to interfere with an individual’s right to vote and to protect the rights of voting for minorities.

 Following the Civil War, African-Americans became a majority of the voting population in some southern states and many African-American candidates were duly elected to public office. This did not sit well with the former Confederate mindset. Because of the continued opposition of the southern states, the Supreme Court in the late 1800s continued to limit the voting protections that they had been put into place by federal  legislation and uphold the intimidation and fraud being employed by White leaders to reduce minority voter turn-out.  The battle for equal rights in voting has played out in this country since its inception and still continues to do so until this day. As the South continued to employ such voting limitations, less African American officials were elected and white leaders came to dominate Legislatures in those states once again.

As a result of this ongoing battle between Congress and the states, African-American voters were disenfranchised  by the early 20th century.   In the first half of the 1900s, several measures were declared unconstitutional by the  United States Supreme Court including grandfather clauses and  white only primaries,  but additional discriminatory practices continued.  By the early 1960s voter registration rates among African-Americans were small in much of the south. In the 1950s and 60s United States Congress continued to enact various legislation to continue to try to protect the rights of African-American voters, but such various legislation was only partially successful. Thanks to the efforts of great civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, the civil rights act of 1964  was passed along with the 24th amendment abolishing poll taxes for voting for federal officers.  A poll tax requires a fee to register to vote.  For example the poll in Texas tax “required otherwise eligible voters to pay between $1.50 and $1.75 to register to vote” which would have been considered a significant some of money at the time.  Similar fees in Southern states often created a barrier for minority voting and largely excluded many eligible voters from being able to exercise their right to vote.  Eliminating this tax removed a huge barrier long used to systematically take away the right to vote from impoverished and/ or minority voters and thus, kept minorities from holding office.

The following year President Lyndon B. Johnson called for cohesive federal regulation to protect the voting rights of all Americans. The result of great protest and federal legislation was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act suspended literacy tests and required federal approval of proposed changes to voting laws in certain jurisdictions that had previously discriminated in their voting regulations.  The act directed the Attorney General of the United States to oversee state elections. The act was expanded to protect the voting rights of non-English-speaking US citizens in 1970 and 1975. In fact, the act continues to be amended to protect my minority voting rights.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 resulted in a clear decrease in the previous voter registration disparity that had existed between white Americans and African-Americans. By the mid-1960s the proportion of black to white registration in the south range from 2 to 1 to 3 to 1 but by the late 1980s the ratio variations in voter registration had largely disappeared. As the number of African-American voters increases so did the number of African Americans elected officials.

For example in the mid-1960s there were only about 70 African-American elected officials in the southern states. But by the turn of the 21st century there were nearly 5000 and the number of African-American members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives had increased from six to approximately 40. There have been cases over the years that have attempted to challenge the voting rights act of 1965 including Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One vs Holder at all US 2009, but the Supreme Court at that time declined to rule on the constitutionality of the voting rights act.

However the more recent challenge in Shelby County vs Holder US Supreme Court 2013 struck down a section of the act which had established a process for determining which jurisdictions were required to obtain free clearance. Court stated that historical changes had eliminated the need for the section.  This eliminated much of the federal oversight of local elections.

Over the past 55 years of its existence the voting rights act of 1965 has often been referred to as the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation that Congress has ever passed. The act provided nationwide voting right protection which included prohibiting state or local authorities from discriminating against racial minorities from voting.  The original act required the federal government approval before local authorities could make changes to their voting laws and regulations. This provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 as a major blow to the original legislation. The late and respected congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis called the supreme court’s decision, which was a 5 to 4 decision, a “dagger in the heart of the voting rights act“

A 2018 report by the federal commission on civil rights found that new state laws have made voting more difficult for minorities and the justice department has done little to challenge those discriminatory laws since the 2013 ruling. Congressman John Lewis passed away in July 2020. However since that time current lawmakers have been pushing the Senate to take of a bill that was passed by the house and champions by Senator Lewis that would restore the key part of the voting rights act the Supreme Court struck down. 

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