Introduction To Federal Voting Rights Laws
The Voting Rights Act, adopted initially in 1965 and extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982,
is generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by
the United States Congress. The Act codifies and effectuates the 15th Amendment's permanent
guarantee that, throughout the nation, no person shall be denied the right to vote on account of
race or color. In addition, the Act contains several special provisions that impose even more
stringent requirements in certain jurisdictions throughout the country.
Adopted at a time when African Americans were substantially disfranchised in many Southern
states, the Act employed measures to restore the right to vote that intruded in matters previously
reserved to the individual states. Section 4 ended the use of literacy requirements for voting
in six Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia)
and in many counties of North Carolina, where voter registration or turnout in the 1964 presidential
election was less than 50 percent of the voting-age population. Under the terms of Section 5 of
the Act, no voting changes were legally enforceable in these jurisdictions until approved either
by a three-judge court in the District of Columbia or by the Attorney General of the United States.
Other sections authorized the Attorney General to appoint federal voting examiners who could be
sent into covered jurisdictions to ensure that legally qualified persons were free to register
for federal, state, and local elections, or to assign federal observers to oversee the conduct
Congress determined that such a far-reaching statute only in response to compelling evidence of
continuing interference with attempts by African American citizens to exercise their right to vote.
As the Supreme Court put it in its 1966 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Act:
Congress had found that case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat wide-spread
and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinant amount of time and energy
required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered in these lawsuits. After
enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well
decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its
South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 327-28 (1966).
At the time the Act was first adopted, only one-third of all African Americans of voting age
were on the registration rolls in the specially covered states, while two-thirds of eligible
whites were registered. Now black voter registration rates are approaching parity with that
of whites in many areas, and Hispanic voters in jurisdictions added to the list of those specially
covered by the Act in 1975 are not far behind. Enforcement of the Act has also increased the
opportunity of black and Latino voters to elect representatives of their choice by providing a
vehicle for challenging discriminatory election methods such as at-large elections, racially
gerrymandered districting plans, or runoff requirements that may dilute minority voting strength.
Virtually excluded from all public offices in the South in 1965, black and Hispanic voters are
now substantially represented in the state legislatures and local governing bodies throughout the