The Right To Vote

U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

How Federal Law Protects You

Photo of Chicago voter registration

Issued September 2000

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. The Act 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 1973aa-6. You can find information about the Voting Rights Act at our website: /crt/about/vot.

How does the Voting Rights Act work against discrimination?

Section 2 of the Act makes it illegal for any state or local government to use election processes or procedures that give voters who are members of racial or ethnic minority groups less opportunity than other voters to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice to public office. Suits can be brought under Section 2 by either the Justice Department or a private citizen.

What is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act?

Section 5 of the Act requires certain state and local governments to get federal approval (known as "preclearance") prior to implementing any changes to their voting procedures -- anything from moving a polling place to changing district lines in the county.

Under Section 5, a covered state, county or local government entity must demonstrate to federal authorities that the voting change in question does not have the purpose or effect of making minority voters worse off than they were prior to the change (i.e., that the change will not be "retrogressive").

Section 5 applies to all or parts of the following states:

Alabama Mississippi
Alaska New Hampshire
Arizona New York
California North Carolina
Florida South Carolina
Georgia South Dakota
Louisiana Texas
Michigan Virginia

The detailed list of "covered jurisdictions" is printed in the Code of Federal Regulations at the end of 28 C.F.R. Part 51. These are the Justice Department's Section 5 guidelines, which explain how the Section 5 review process works and help jurisdictions with terminology, deadlines and many other matters.

What is the Justice Department's role under Section 5?

Under Section 5, covered jurisdictions cannot enforce voting changes until they obtain approval ("preclearance") either from the federal district court in Washington, D.C. or from the U.S. Attorney General. If the jurisdiction chooses to obtain preclearance from the Attorney General, she has 60 days after receiving all the necessary information to decide whether to preclear the proposed change.

Is the Attorney General's determination the end of the process?

Not always. If the Attorney General objects to a submitted change (thus blocking its implementation) the jurisdiction can still file a declaratory judgment action with the federal district court in D.C. requesting approval for the change.

Also, if the Attorney General preclears the change, the Justice Department or a private party can still go to court to challenge the change under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as a racially discriminatory voting procedure.

What must a covered jurisdiction do to comply with the law?

To learn what the Voting Rights Act requires of your jurisdiction, the best place to start is the Justice Department's Section 5 guidelines, 28 C.F.R. 51.01 to 51.67. The guidelines explain what should be in a submission, who should make the submission and when it should be made, how long the Department's review will take, what happens if the Attorney General objects to a change, and many other details you will want to know. You can find the guidelines in any copy of the Code of Federal Regulations, or you can request a copy from the Voting Section at the toll-free number.

Can individuals have their views considered in the Section 5 review process?

Yes. Anyone can write to the Attorney General or call the Voting Section with a comment for or against preclearance while the submission is pending. You don't need a lawyer or any special qualifications.

Each week, the Civil Rights Division posts notices on its website indicating the voting changes that have been submitted under Section 5. These notices may also be requested from the Voting Section at the address listed below.

Does the Voting Rights Act protect language minorities?

Yes. Section 203 of the Act makes it illegal to discriminate in voting based on someone's membership in a language minority group (such as Spanish-speaking). Suits under Section 203 can be brought either by the Justice Department or by a private citizen.

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 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.

What is a federal complaints examiner?

Federal examiners are officials to whom complaints of voting discrimination can be made under certain circumstances. Section 6 of the Voting Rights Act allows the U.S. Attorney General to "certify" a county for the appointment of a federal complaint examiner to be available during each of the county's elections, and for two days afterward, to take complaints from any voters who claim that they have not been allowed to vote.

People in certified counties can contact a federal examiner by calling the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's (OPM's) toll free number: 1-888 496-9455. You can find out whether your county is certified by consulting 45 C.F.R., Part 801 or by calling OPM's toll-free number.

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 and individuals. Under certain circumstances, the Attorney General can send federal observers to any jurisdiction covered by Section 5 or by a court order.

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.

However, some sections of the Voting Rights Act need to be renewed to remain in effect. When Congress amended and strengthened the Voting Rights Act in 1982, it extended for 25 more years--until 2007--the preclearance requirement of Section 5, the authority to use federal examiners and observers, and some of the statute's language minority requirements. So, for those sections to extend past 2007, Congress will have to take action. But even if these special provisions are not renewed, the rest of the Voting Rights Act will continue to prohibit discrimination in voting.

What other voting rights laws does the Justice Department enforce?

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "motor voter" law) requires states to make voter registration opportunities available when people apply for or receive services at a variety of government agencies, from driver's license offices to social services agencies and public benefits offices. The law also says states must not take voters off the rolls merely because they have not voted.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 requires states to make sure that members of our armed forces who are stationed away from home, and citizens who are living overseas, can register and vote absentee in federal elections.

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 requires polling places across the United States to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Also private citizens may file their own lawsuits under the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act and the National Voter Registration Act.

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 sometimes become involved in election fraud matters when a state prosecutor asks for federal assistance. Also, the Justice Department can become involved when allegations arise that criminal vote fraud has occurred in a federal election.

If you have information about vote fraud, you should contact the nearest office of the FBI or your local U.S. Attorney's office. If you know of vote fraud that was racially motivated, you can contact the Voting Section.

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. 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 discrimination in voting, please call or write us.

How can I make a discrimination complaint under the Voting Rights Act?

You can contact us. We encourage anyone with a complaint about voting discrimination to let us know what the problem is, where it is, and how it affects minority voters. There are no special forms to use or procedures to follow--just call us toll-free at 1-800-253-3931, or write to us at:

Chief, Voting Section
Civil Rights Division
Room 7254 - NWB
Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC  20530

The Civil Rights Division has a homepage on the World Wide Web. Visit us at: /crt/about/vot

Note: This brochure is available upon request in alternate formats.

Go to the Civil Rights Division Home Page
Go to the Voting Section Home Page

Last Revised - February 4, 2003

Updated August 6, 2015

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