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Week of 9.1.06

Primer: The Voting Rights Act

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is considered one of America's most effective righting of systemic wrongs that hurt our democratic values. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law after violent attacks on civil rights marchers demanding the right to vote. The Act enforced the Constitution's 15th Amendment that guaranteed Americans the right to vote regardless of race or color. As a result, double-digit gaps in southern voter registration rates between whites and blacks in 1965 were brought down to single digits by 1988.

Among its most important mandates:

  • Eliminating poll taxes and literacy requirements for voting.
  • Federal registration of voters in states with low rates of voter registration.
  • More extensive Department of Justice oversight of state election laws and procedures.

With three temporary provisions of the act set to expire in 2007, Congress introduced a bill this summer implementing a 25-year extension. The provisions mandated:

  • Changes to voting policies and procedures to be cleared with the Department of Justice or a D.C. federal court, for some jurisdictions.
  • Bilingual language assistance to be provided at polling places.
  • Federal election examiners may be sent by the government to jurisdictions where there was evidence of minority voter intimidation.

President George W. Bush signs the reauthorization of the landmark legislation, Voting Rights Act as lawmakers look on.
President George W. Bush signs the reauthorization of the landmark legislation, Voting Rights Act as lawmakers look on.
There was some debate in the House as Republicans complained the law unfairly singled out states for special federal oversight. These jurisdictions included nine states, most of them in the south, and parts of seven others, including Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx in New York. The lawmakers claimed the "pre-clearance" requirement was no longer necessary because their states had made changes to protect voter rights since the law was originally enacted.

Other Republicans opposed the provision requiring bilingual ballots in jurisdictions that have a high percentage of non-English speaking citizens.

The legislation, with all provisions intact, was signed into law by President Bush in July 2006.

More About the Federal Voting Rights Act:

The Department of Justice

National Commission on the Voting Rights Act

View the Voting Rights Act document

From the NAACP, reporting on the 2006 bill's passage

From CivilRights.org, calling for approval of the extension

From The ACLU, calling for approval of the extension