The U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Within months of its approval, the law permitted hundreds of thousands of African Americans to register to vote.
But as the law turns 56 this month, voting rights supporters say the legislation faces the most serious dangers yet to its existence.
One threat is a set of restrictive voting rules passed by Republican-controlled states across the nation. The other is a conservative-controlled Supreme Court which has steadily lessened the legal protections under the law.
State legislation to limit voting rights
The Brennan Center for Justice reported that nearly 400 bills described as election reform have been introduced in 49 states this year. Of these bills, 30 have been signed into law in 18 states.
The center said the laws will make it harder for Americans to vote. They include restrictions on mail voting and early voting. They also add stronger voter identification requirements and make it easier to remove certain voters.
Democrats called the new laws a form of voter suppression. In Texas, Democratic lawmakers even left the state to prevent the Republican majority from holding a vote.
U.S. President Joe Biden criticized the bills as an assault on hard-won voting rights. Speaking from Philadelphia in July, Biden said, "The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real.” The term was about the 19th- and 20th-century racial segregation laws. It is now used to describe voter suppression moves.
Republican officials behind the laws say they are meant to prevent fraud and bring back public confidence in elections. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said of the state’s new election law, "Georgia will take another step toward ensuring our elections are secure, accessible and fair."
Rights to vote
The U.S. Constitution did not guarantee everyone the right to vote. Black men first gained the right to vote, after the Civil War, with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. But some southern states still restricted the right to vote by requiring them to pay taxes or to pass a literacy test, setting off a long struggle for civil rights.
An important marker in the movement came on March 7, 1965. On that day, a group of 600 activists led by John Lewis marched from Selma, Alabama, to the state's capital, Montgomery, to register Black voters. They were violently attacked by police. Images of the incident known as "Bloody Sunday" were televised around the country. It caused a national outcry that brought support for voting rights legislation.
Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture in the march, went on to become a member of Congress. "It was worth the suffering of so many people. It was worthy of the blood that some of us gave," Lewis said in a 2015 interview with VOA.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. It outlawed the literacy tests that had made it almost impossible for many Blacks to register to vote. More importantly, it included two measures, known as Section 4 and Section 5, requiring states to get federal approval for any change in their voting laws and policies.
Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, now heads the National Urban League. He told VOA that the two sections “made democracy fair, level and evenhanded.”
Shelby County v. Holder
Both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court supported the law throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court weakened the law, voting 5-4 to cancel Section 4. The ruling effectively ended the requirement that states, mainly in the south, have to get federal approval for any change in their voting laws and policies.
In the 50 years since the Voting Rights Act's passage, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "things have changed dramatically" in the areas that are subject to the law, making the requirement unnecessary.
Within hours of the ruling, the state of Texas announced that it would immediately require a photo identification to vote. That state law had been blocked under the Voting Rights Act. Soon, other states did the same thing.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court approved two Arizona voting rules that were not permitted under the act. The first rule throws out votes entered in the wrong polling area. The second makes it a crime for anyone other than family members or caregivers to collect a voter's ballot.
Democrats argued that both rules made voting more difficult for minority voters - in violation of Section 2. But the six conservative justices of the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the voting laws cause unnecessary problems for voters.
New voting rights laws
Viewing the Supreme Court as hostile to voting rights, Democrats have introduced two bills in Congress to protect the gains of the Voting Rights Act.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would once again require certain areas to get federal approval for changing their voting rules.
Another legislation, known as the For the People Act, would create automatic voter registration across the country, restore voting rights to criminals who have completed their sentences, and expand early and mail voting, among other measures.
Republican opposition makes it unlikely that the two proposals will pass this year.
I’m Jill Robbins.
Masood Farivar reported on this story for VOA News. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
segregation – n. the practice or policy of keeping people of different races, religions, etc., separate from each other
(voter) fraud – n. intentional corruption of the election process by voting in the wrong district or under a false identification
ensure – v. to make (something) sure, certain, or safe
access – n. a way of being able to use or get something
fracture – v. to cause a crack or break in (something hard, such as a bone)
dramatic – adj. sudden and extreme
polling – n. the act of voting in an election
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