DemDaily: The Voting Rights Act: Then and Now

August 8, 2017

This week marks the anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, considered the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in U.S. history.

The Voting Rights Act, passed on August 6, 1965, prohibited racial discrimination in voting and was designed to enforce the voting rights of racial minorities guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

More than a half a century later, however, those same rights are endangered.

VRA History
The landmark legislation came out of the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s that witnessed mass resistance to decades of discrimination and oppression against African-Americans at home and at the ballot box.

From the firebombing of black churches across the south and deaths of three Mississippi volunteers in during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, to the brutal beatings of activists during the peaceful voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March of 1965, Americans were outraged at the violence sweeping the country.

Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the presidency following the November, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, had been re-elected by a landslide in 1964 and made protection of voting rights a mandate of his administration.

Johnson crafted legislation that illegalized election practices that denied the right to vote based on race, and required jurisdiction with a history of voting discrimination to get federal approval for changes in their election laws before they can take effect.

In a passionate speech to a joint session of Congress in March of 1965, Johnson called for comprehensive voting rights legislation, saying "I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy."

Five months later, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders present, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law, calling it

"A triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield."

Epilogue
Nevertheless, in the ensuing decades, various discriminatory practices were used to prevent African Americans, particularly those in the South, from exercising their right to vote.

Congress passed major amendments extending the VRA's protections in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006, but in 2013, the Supreme Court, in Shelby v Holder, struck down the federal pre-clearance provison required of nine Southern states and their voter laws.

Since the ruling numerous states, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Texas have passed laws reversing earlier VRA protections and, in some cases, enacted more aggressive voter suppression laws.  While the courts struck down some, voter restrictions stll remain in place in over a dozen states.

Subsequent legislation to reinstate critical VRA protections, including the 2014 and 2015 "The Voting Right Amendment Act" have been introduced in Congress, but did not progress beyond the committee level.

In May of this year President Trump formed The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity charged with "producing a set of recommendations to increase the American people's confidence in the integrity of our election systems" -- but considered by opponents to be an effort to further supress voter access to the polls.

The right to vote is the single greatest privilege granted to Americans and we cannot stop until every citizen enjoys that right.

DemList will keep you informed.

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Kimberly Scott
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Sources: History.com, The Voter Participation Center, ACLU, Wikipedia, VRAfortoday.com

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