Skip Navigation
Resource

The Voting Rights Act: Protecting Voters for Nearly Five Decades

The Voting Rights Act has been instrumental in protecting the right to vote for generations. The Supreme Court will consider a key provision of this landmark civil rights law in Shelby County v. Holder. This summary explains the history and importance of the Act for minority voters and why the Court must uphold the law.

Published: February 26, 2013

The right to vote is a funda­mental Amer­ican value that must be protec­ted. For gener­a­tions, the Voting Rights Act has been instru­mental in protect­ing this right. On Febru­ary 27, 2013, the Supreme Court will consider a key provi­sion of this land­mark civil rights law in Shelby County v. Holder. This summary explains the history and import­ance of the Voting Rights Act for minor­ity voters, and why the Supreme Court must uphold the law.

***

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure state and local govern­ments don’t pass laws or policies that deny Amer­ican citizens the equal right to vote based on race. As the lead­ing demo­cracy of the world, the U.S. should work to keep voting free, fair, and access­ible. That’s why the Voting Rights Act is so import­ant. It makes sure every citizen, regard­less of their race, has an equal oppor­tun­ity to have a say and parti­cip­ate in our great demo­cracy. The Voting Rights Act is the most effect­ive civil rights law ever enacted, and it’s some­thing we should all be proud of.

Section 5 is the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It requires covered juris­dic­tions to submit any proposed changes in voting proced­ures to the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice or a federal district court in D.C. — before it goes into effect — to ensure it does not harm minor­ity voters. This blocks discrim­in­a­tion before it occurs. This process is known as “preclear­ance.” Section 5 applies to all or part of 16 states. See here for a complete list.

Section 5 is an essen­tial and proven tool. Although progress has been made since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voting discrim­in­a­tion still persists. Between 1982 and 2006 (when Congress over­whelm­ingly renewed the law), the Voting Rights Act blocked more than 1,000 proposed discrim­in­at­ory voting changes. Without Section 5’s protec­tion, these changes would have gone into effect and harmed minor­ity voters.

Section 5 is still needed to prevent and address real and continu­ing threats to Amer­ic­ans’ right to vote. States continue to enact laws to restrict minor­ity voting access. Section 5 is a proven remedy to protect voters. In 2012, it blocked a highly-restrict­ive voter ID laws in Texas and a law in Flor­ida that elim­in­ated early voting days, which would have made it more diffi­cult for hundreds of thou­sands of minor­ity voters to cast a ballot.

Back­ground: Shelby County v. Holder

In 2010, Shelby County, Alabama, a largely white suburb of Birm­ing­ham, filed suit in federal court in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., seek­ing to have Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act declared uncon­sti­tu­tional. Shelby County claims that Congress did not have the required consti­tu­tional author­ity when it reau­thor­ized Section 5 in 2006. Shelby County’s chal­lenge seeks to inval­id­ate the law not only in Alabama, but every­where Section 5 applies, includ­ing 9 full states, and 57 counties in 5 partially-covered states.

Shelby County’s own record of voting discrim­in­a­tion provides a good example for why this core protec­tion is still neces­sary. In 2006, the City of Calera, which lies within Shelby County, enacted a discrim­in­at­ory redis­trict­ing plan without comply­ing with the Voting Rights Act, lead­ing to the loss of the city’s sole black coun­cil­man, Ernest Mont­gomery. Under Section 5, however, Calera was required to draw a nondis­crim­in­at­ory redis­trict­ing plan, and to conduct another elec­tion. In this lawful elec­tion, black voters selec­ted their candid­ate of choice, and Mr. Mont­gomery regained his seat on the city coun­cil.

The Shelby County chal­lenge claims the Voting Rights Act is uncon­sti­tu­tional because it hurts states’ rights. But this argu­ment was rejec­ted by the U.S. Supreme Court shortly after the Act was origin­ally enacted in 1965. In total, four separ­ate U.S. Supreme Court decisions have upheld the Voting Rights Act through the decades. In 2006, Congress also voted over­whelm­ingly to reau­thor­ize this essen­tial law (98–0 in the Senate, and 390–33 in the House), recog­niz­ing that seri­ous threats to our voting rights continue today.

***

The passage of the Voting Rights Act is a reflec­tion of the prom­ise of our Consti­tu­tion that all Amer­ic­ans would truly have the right to vote without facing discrim­in­a­tion, poll taxes, and other abuses. We can’t go back to those days, and the Voting Rights Act is our nation’s prom­ise that we never will.

The Voting Rights Act and Section 5 repres­ent the values of Amer­ica — free­dom and equal rights under the law. If Amer­ica wants to live up to this prom­ise of equal­ity, states should­n’t be able to ignore the Voting Rights Act and make it harder for some eligible Amer­ic­ans to vote.

The Continu­ing Need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act

  • In 2001, the white mayor and all-white Board of Alder­man for the city of Kilmi­chael, Missis­sippi attemp­ted to cancel an elec­tion shortly after black citizens had become a major­ity of the registered voters. The Depart­ment of Justice denied preclear­ance under Section 5, find­ing that the cancela­tion was designed to worsen the voting strength of African-Amer­ican voters. The town refused to resched­ule the elec­tion until the Depart­ment of Justice forced it to hold one in 2003, at which time the citizens elec­ted the town’s first African-Amer­ican mayor and three African-Amer­ican alder­men.
  • After the 2000 Census showed that Lati­nos had become a major­ity in five of eight districts, the city of Seguin, Texas proposed dismant­ling a Latino-major­ity district. The Depart­ment of Justice indic­ated that preclear­ance was unlikely, and the city with­drew its preclear­ance request but promptly closed the candid­ate filing period to prevent any Latino candid­ate from compet­ing in the district. A subsequent Section 5 enforce­ment action blocked this discrim­in­a­tion.
  • In 2004, an Asian Amer­ican candid­ate ran for city coun­cil for the first time in the history of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. The white incum­bent and his support­ers chal­lenged about 50 Asian-Amer­ican voters at the polls during the primary elec­tions, claim­ing that if they “could­n’t speak good English, they possibly weren’t Amer­ican citizens.” The Depart­ment of Justice determ­ined these chal­lenges were race-based . The Depart­ment of Justice prohib­ited the chal­lenges in the 2004 general elec­tion because of Section 5. The Asian-Amer­ican candid­ate won the coun­cil posi­tion in that elec­tion.
  • One week before the New York City primary elec­tions in 2001 — which had been resched­uled after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center — the Board of Elec­tions planned to close a busy poll site in Manhat­tan’s Chin­atown without making any announce­ments in Chinese-language news­pa­pers and without inform­ing limited English profi­cient voters about this change. The Depart­ment of Justice informed the Board that the change could not take effect under Section 5. On primary day, hundreds of votes were cast at the original Chin­atown poll site. Without Section 5, many of these voters would have lost their right to vote.
  • In 2011, Texas lawmakers proposed redraw­ing polit­ical bound­ar­ies that would have created four new congres­sional districts. Despite the substan­tial growth in Texas’s minor­ity popu­la­tion in the past decade, not one of the new districts created the abil­ity for the Latino or African-Amer­ican community to elect their candid­ate of choice. A federal district court found that the maps were enacted to inten­tion­ally discrim­in­ate against Latino and African-Amer­ican voters, and Texas’s redis­trict­ing proposal was blocked under Section 5.

View this page as a PDF in English or Span­ish. Also see this infographic from NAACP LDF on why Section 5 is still needed