Timeline: A History of the Voting Rights Act
The constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act is before the Supreme Court of the United States in Shelby v Holder. Arguments for the case are February 27 and a decision is expected in June.
The ACLU represents a group of individual and organizational interveners in the Department of Justice’s case to uphold the VRA’s constitutionality.
The Voting Rights Act is a historic civil rights law that is meant to ensure that the right to vote is not denied on account of race or color.
1866 Civil Rights Act of 1866 grants citizenship, but not the right to vote, to all native-born Americans.
Congress passes the Fifteenth Amendment giving African American men the right to vote.
Louisiana passes “grandfather clauses” to keep former slaves and their descendants from voting. As a result, registered black voters drops from 44.8% in 1896 to 4.0% four years later. Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama and Virginia follow Louisiana’s lead by enacting their own grandfather clauses.
Only 3% of eligible African Americans in the South are registered to vote.
Jim Crow laws like literacy tests and poll taxes were meant to keep African Americans from voting.
Poll taxes are outlawed with the adoption of the 24th Amendment.
More than 500 non-violent civil rights marchers are attacked by law enforcement officers while attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demand the need for African American voting rights.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law, permanently barring barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities, prohibiting any election practice that denies the right to vote on account of race, and requiring jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval for changes in their election laws before they can take effect.
By the end of 1965, 250,000 new black voters are registered, one third of them by federal examiners.
President Richard Nixon signed an extension of the Voting Rights Act.
Nixon: “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has opened participation in the political process.”
Barbara Jordan of Houston and Andrew Young of Atlanta become the first African Americans elected to Congress from the South since Reconstruction.
President Gerald Ford signed an extension of the Voting Rights Act.
President Ronald Reagan signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act.
Due, in part, to the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, the number of black elected officials in Georgia grows to 495 in 1990 from just three prior to the VRA.
Congress extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for an additional 25 years.
A record number of restrictions to voting were introduced in state legislatures nationwide, including photo ID requirements, cuts to early voting and restrictions to voter registration. Many of these states have histories of voter discrimination and are covered under the VRA. Voter Suppression Map
Restrictions to voting passed in South Carolina, Texas and Florida are found to disproportionately impact minority voters.
Florida passed a law that restricts voter registration and made cuts to early voting. The majority of African Americans in Florida rely on early voting to cast a ballot, and register to vote through community based registration.
South Carolina passed a restrictive voter ID law that would keep more than 180,000 African Americans from casting a ballot.
Under the VRA, the DOJ blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law, saying it discriminates against minority voters. The DC federal district court later precleared the law but only because the state agreed that an ID was not required for voting.
Texas passed one of the nation’s most restrictive voter ID laws. Under the VRA, the state was required to submit the law to DOJ or the DC federal district court for approval. The court blocked the law, citing racial impact. Court Blocks Texas Voter ID Law, Citing Racial Impact
2010 to Present
Since 2010 alone, the Department of Justice has had 18 Section 5 objections to voting laws in Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The ACLU represents the NAACP’s Alabama chapter in Shelby v Holder. Alabama NAACP president Bernard Simelton says,
"The Voting Rights Act has been the single most effective and indispensable tool in American history for protecting the right to vote of racial minorities. Since its passage, we have made significant gains to ensure equal access to the ballot box, but unfortunately, discrimination at the polls persists today and cannot be dismissed as a relic of the past.
"As we've seen over the last few years in states across the country, efforts to suppress the vote continue, and although the tactics have changed, the goal of disfranchisement remains the same. Modern day voter suppression tactics like photo ID requirements, restrictions to registration and cuts to early voting target voters who have been historically disfranchised.
"The Voting Rights Act is a critical safeguard in defending against these discriminatory policies by serving as our democracy’s discrimination checkpoint; it puts in place a crucial system of checks and balances to ensure such ill-conceived proposals never see the light of day.
"We must ensure this vital tool lives on."