Many of today’s disputes about voting rights are addressed under the umbrella of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an epochal piece of legislation signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6 of that year. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis and other pivotal civil rights leaders were all there when he signed it. Below, we offer some facts informed voters ought to know about that law.
A quick breakdown of key provisions of the bill:
Section 2 prohibits any voting standard, practice or procedure imposed or applied by any State or subdivision “to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race.”
Section 3 authorizes the Attorney General to initiate proceedings in the courts to enforce the rights guaranteed by section 2 and the 15th amendment, and authorizes the courts to appoint examiners to assist them in the enforcement of those guarantees.
Section 4 specifically abolishes literacy tests, educational requirements, and other tests and devices that were traditional armaments by this time in the disenfranchisement of African Americans.
Section 5 provides that if certain states and their subdivisions with a history of racial discrimination in voting standards and practices decide to change their voting laws, they must ask permission for the Attorney General or the federal court for the District of Columbia, and that the proposed change is frozen until a favorable determination is found. This is known as “preclearance.”
In a 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court in effect eliminated preclearance procedures, gutting section 5. This has allowed the states, especially those of the old Confederacy, to make changes in their voting rights laws that in turn have been very controversial, that likely would not have survived preclearance.
The Thing to Know:
One key fact about the John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act, which failed of passage last year due to the Senate filibuster, is that they have been designed to short-circuit the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the 2013 Shelby case, in order to reintroduce preclearance requirements, and it would ease the federal government’s ability to impose preclearance on new states and localities.