Frequently Asked Questions

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 1973bb-1.

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 Act do?

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. 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 majority-minority districts?

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 Rights Act.

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 1973gg-10) requires states to make voter registration opportunities for federal elections available through the mail and when people apply for or receive a driver's license, public assistance, disability services or other government 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 administration 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 Native languages.

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 the Justice Department to monitor an election?

You can contact the Department of Justice to request monitoring of an election. Please describe when and where the election is being conducted and the possible violations of the federal voting rights laws that are of concern. The Department considers many such requests each year.

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 crime, how can I get it restored?

Each state has different rules regarding the effect of a criminal conviction on the right to vote and on regaining the right to vote if it has been lost. Contact your state for the most current rules.

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.  

Does the 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. 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 question.

Does a State have to comply with Title III of HAVA if it does not seek or accept federal funding?

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
Go to the Department of Justice Home Page

Updated August 8, 2015

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