ACLU History: Changing the Face of American Politics

Document Date: September 1, 2010

On signing the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law, President Johnson observed: ‘There will be many actions and many difficulties before the rights woven into law are also woven into the fabric of our Nation.’ Since then, the ACLU has worked to ensure that the provisions of the Act were enforced. Indeed, from the passage of the VRA in 1965 through the 1980s, the ACLU shouldered most of the burden of private voting rights enforcement. Throughout this period, the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project filed hundreds of cases, with an average of 15 to 20 active lawsuits at a time. A few of the most notable cases include:

Dunn v. Blumstein (1972), invalidating Tennessee’s one-year residency requirement for registration and voting as violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Aside from its general impact on all voters, such residency requirements had been enacted by many Southern states after Reconstruction as another device to deter registration and voting by blacks, who had become more mobile following the abolition of slavery.

McCain v. Lybrand (1984),expanding the reach of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the special preclearance provision, by requiring jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to specifically identify the proposed changes in their voting practices or procedures.

Hunter v. Underwood (1985), holding that an Alabama law disfranchising persons convicted of misdemeanors involving ‘moral turpitude’ violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it had been adopted purposefully to discriminate against blacks and deny them access to voting.

Windy Boy v. Big Horn County (1986), applying Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, as amended in 1982, to invalidate ‘at-large’ elections because they diluted the voting strength of American Indians.

Many of the cases filed by the ACLU to enforce the VRA were complex and required years of hard work to bring to fruition. The ACLU’s voting rights litigation didn’t always make headlines, but it quietly transformed the face of American politics, and represents one of the organization’s most significant and far-reaching achievements to date.

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» Dunn v. Blumstein
» McCain v. Lybrand
» Hunter v. Underwood
» Windy Boy v. Big Horn County

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