What federal law protects me
from discrimination in voting?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects every American against racial discrimination in voting.
This law also protects the voting rights of many people who have limited English skills.
It stands for the principle that everyone's vote is equal, and that neither race nor language should
shut any of us out of the political process. You can find the Voting Rights Act in the United
States Code at 42 U.S.C. 1973 to 1973.
Where did the Voting Rights
Act come from?
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement in
the South, a movement committed to securing equal voting rights for African Americans.
The action came immediately after one of the most important events of that movement, a clash
between black civil rights marchers and white police in Selma, Alabama.
The marchers were starting a 50-mile walk to the state capital, Montgomery, to demand equal rights
in voting, when police used violence to disperse them. What happened that day in Selma shocked
the nation, and led President Johnson to call for immediate passage
of a strong federal voting rights law.
What does the Voting Rights
The Voting Rights Act bans all kinds of racial discrimination in voting. For years, many states
had laws on their books that served only to prevent minority citizens from voting. Some of these
laws required people to take a reading test or interpret some passage out of the Constitution in
order to vote, or required people registering to vote to bring someone already registered who would
vouch for their "good character." The Voting Rights Act made these and other
discriminatory practices illegal, and gave private citizens the right to sue in federal court
to stop them. In recent times, courts have applied the Act to end race discrimination in the method
of electing state and local legislative bodies and in the choosing of poll officials.
What does the Justice
Department do to enforce the Voting Rights Act?
Under Section 2 of the Act the Department may sue in federal court to challenge those practices
that it has determined are racially discriminatory. The Department has a description of
the lawsuits of this nature that it has filed.Several
of this nature are filed every year. The Department also works with states and localities to help them
understand the Voting Rights Act and avoid discrimination in voting, and may
send federal observers to monitor elections when such monitoring is deemed necessary.
Will the Voting
Rights Act expire?
No. The Voting Rights Act is a permanent federal law. Moreover, the equal right to vote regardless
of race or color is protected by the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has been
part of our law since the end of the Civil War. And in case after case, our courts have held that
the right to vote is fundamental. Voting rights will not expire.
However, some sections of the Voting Rights Act needed to be renewed to remain in effect.
In 2006, Congress passed the Voting Rights and Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006 which renews nearly all of the temporary
provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The rest of the Voting Rights Act also will continue to prohibit discrimination in voting.
What kinds of racial
discrimination in voting are there, and what does the Voting Rights Act do about them?
The Voting Rights Act is not limited to discrimination that literally excludes voters
from the polls based on race. Section 2 of the Act (42 U.S.C. 1973) makes it illegal for any state or local
government to use election processes that are not equally open to voters based on race, or that give
voters less opportunity than other voters to participate in the political process and
elect representatives of their choice to public office based on race.
Is it prohibited to draw
No. Over 30 years ago the Supreme Court held that jurisdictions are free to draw majority-minority
election districts that follow traditional, non-racial districting considerations, such as geographic
compactness and keeping communities of interest together. Later Supreme Court decisions have held
that drawing majority-minority districts may be required to ensure compliance with the Voting
While it remains legally permissible for jurisdictions to take race into account when drawing
election districts, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution requires a strong justification
if racial considerations predominate over traditional districting principles. One such justification
may be the need to remedy a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. While such a remedy
may include election district boundaries that compromise traditional districting principles, such
districts must be drawn where the Section 2 violation occurs and must not compromise traditional
principles more than is necessary to remedy the violation.
What other voting rights laws
does the Justice Department enforce?
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 42 U.S.C. 1973gg to 1073gg-1
requires states to make voter registration opportunities for federal elections available through the mail and
when people apply for or receive services at a driver's license, public assistance or disability services.
The NVRA also provides rules regarding maintenance of voter registration lists for federal elections.
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of
1986 (42 U.S.C. 1973ff to 1973ff-7) requires states to make sure that members of our uniformed
forces who are stationed away from home, their families, and U.S. citizens who are overseas, can register and
vote absentee in federal elections.
The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 (42 U.S.C. 1973ee to 1973ee-6)
requires states to take certain steps to make the voting process accessible to people with disabilities.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (42 U.S.C. 15301 to 15545) is designed to improve the administration of
elections in the United States by establishing minimum standards for states to follow in several key
aspects of election administraiton in federal elections.
Does the Voting Rights Act
protect language minorities?
Yes. The Voting Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate in voting based on someone's membership
in a language minority group. The idea behind the Voting Rights Act's minority language provisions is
to remove language as a barrier to political participation, and to prevent voting discrimination
against people who speak minority languages. The Justice Department enforces these protections by
bringing lawsuits in federal court, by sending federal observers to monitor elections, and by working
with local jurisdictions to improve their minority language election procedures.
The Voting Rights Act further protects minority language group members by requiring particular
jurisdictions to print ballots and other election materials in the minority language as well as in
English, and to have oral translation help available at the polls where the need exists. The formulas
for determining which jurisdictions must do this are based on the share of the local population in need,
and can be found in Sections 4(f) and 203 of the Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C. 1973b(f) and 1973aa-1a).
The Act requires bilingual election procedures in various states and counties for voters who speak
Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, and more than a dozen Native American and Alaskan
The list of jurisdictions covered by the Act's minority language requirements is printed in the
Code of Federal Regulations at the end of 28 C.F.R. Part 55. These are the Justice Department's
minority language guidelines; they set out the Department's
interpretations of the law in detail, and explain how jurisdictions can best comply with it.
The guidelines start by saying jurisdictions should take "all reasonable steps" to enable
language minority voters "to be effectively informed of and participate effectively in
voting-connected activities." The guidelines also say that "a jurisdiction is more likely
to achieve compliance . . . if it has worked with the cooperation . . . and to the satisfaction of
organizations representing members of the applicable language minority group."
What are federal observers?
Federal observers are authorized by Section 8 of the
Voting Rights Act to attend and observe voting and vote-counting procedures during elections.
They are non-lawyers, hired and supervised by the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
They are trained by OPM and by the Justice Department to watch, listen, and take careful notes of
everything that happens inside the polling place during an election, and are also trained not to
interfere with the election in any way. They prepare reports that may be filed in court, and they
can serve as witnesses in court if the need arises.
How do I get federal observers
to monitor an election?
You can contact the Voting Section and explain where the need exists, what needs to be observed,
and which minority voters are affected. We consider many such requests each year from organizations
What responsibilities does the
Justice Department have with regard to voter fraud or intimidation?
The administration of elections is chiefly a function of state government. However, federal authorities may
become involved where there are possible violations of federal law.
In cases where intimidation, coercion, or threats are made or attempts to intimidate, threaten or coerce
are made to any person for voting or attempting to vote, the Department of Justice can consider whether there
is federal jurisdiction to bring civil claims or criminal charges under federal law. Depending on the nature
of the allegations, they may fall into the jurisdiction of different parts of the Department. If you have
information about allegations of intimidation, please contact us.
If you have information about voter fraud in federal elections, please contact the nearest office
of the FBI or your local U.S. Attorney’s office or the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division.
What responsibilities does the
Justice Department have with regard to campaign finance?
Generally, the Justice Department is not directly involved with campaign finance matters.
Federal election campaign finance is the subject of a separate federal statute, the Federal Election
Campaign Act of 1974. FECA matters are handled by the Federal Election Commission, 999 E Street, N.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20463. Intentional violations of federal campaign finance laws are federal crimes,
and are handled by the FBI. If you have a question about campaign finance in state elections,
contact your state elections office.
Can the Justice Department run
elections to make sure they are fair?
The Justice Department does not administer elections; that is the responsibility of state and
local election officials. The Department sometimes sends observers to monitor elections for
compliance with federal voting rights laws. If you have a question about election practices,
candidate qualifying rules, the location of polling places, or other voting procedures in your
jurisdiction, contact your local or state election officials. If you have information about
possible violations of federal voting rights law, please call or write us.
If I lost my right to
vote because I was convicted of a felony, how can I get it restored?
Each state has different rules on the rights of convicted felons to vote and on
restoration of those rights once it has been lost. Contact your state election board
for the most current law.
How can I make a
complaint regarding possible violations of the federal voting rights laws?
We encourage anyone with a complaint about possible violations of the federal voting rights law
to contact us. There are no special forms to use or procedures to follow--just call us toll-free at (800) 253-3931, or
write to us.
What is the role of the Civil Rights Division in enforcing HAVA?
Under Section 401 of HAVA, the Attorney General enforces the uniform and nondiscriminatory
election technology and administration requirements that apply to the States under Sections 301,
302, and 303 of Title III.
Civil Rights Division distribute federal funds under HAVA?
The Civil Rights Division has no role in distributing federal funds under HAVA.
Any questions regarding funding should be directed to the federal agencies with
responsibility for those programs.
To what elections does Title III of HAVA apply?
Title III of HAVA applies only to elections for federal office. HAVA does
not contain a definition of the term "election for federal office." However,
Section 3 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. 1973gg-1(1)&(2),
defines "election" and "federal office" as those terms appear in the Federal Election
Campaign Act of 1971 (2 U.S.C. 431(1) & (3)). Other definitions or
descriptions of the scope of elections for federal office appear in the Uniformed
and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, 42 U.S.C. 1973ff-1(a)(1) &
1973ff-6(3); the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984,
42 U.S.C. 1973ee-6(3); and the Civil Rights Act of 1960, 42 U.S.C. 1974. It is the
Department's view that the requirements of Title III of HAVA were intended to apply
in any general, special, primary, or runoff election for the office of President or
Vice President, including presidential preference primaries, and any general, special,
primary, or runoff election for the office of Senator or Representative in, or Delegate
or Resident Commissioner to, the Congress from the 50 states, the District of Columbia,
and the four Territories.
Does Title III of HAVA apply to all States?
Section 901 of HAVA defines the term "State" to include all 50 States as well as the District of
Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the United States
Virgin Islands. However, some parts of Title III do apply differently depending on the State in
Does a State have to comply with Title III of HAVA if it does not seek or accept federal
Unless a State is specifically excluded from one of HAVA's requirements, each State must
comply with Sections 301, 302, and 303 of Title III of HAVA as of the effective dates in those
sections. This is true regardless of whether that State chooses to accept federal
funding under Title I or Title II.
National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) - Questions and Answers
about Sections 5, 6, 7, and 8
Go to the Civil Rights Division Home Page
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