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The Erosion of Voting Rights in the United States – A Historical Review of the Voting Rights Act

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

This article was written by contributor Lily Meckel


The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 is one of the most significant pieces of legislation in civil rights history and established equal voting rights, thereby banning racial discrimination in the voting process in the United States. In the last few years this act has come under attack. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling struck down sections of the legislation, making it harder to vote in some parts of the country. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is a piece of legislation being put forward that is meant to restore some of the key aspects of the Voting Rights Act. Yet, up until this day, it still has not passed through Congress, allowing for manifold discriminatory policies to be implemented that range from strict voter ID laws to reducing polling places, which disproportionality affect people of colour, thereby suppressing the vote. This article will look into how voting rights have been violated and become a politically contentious issue in one of the oldest democracies in the world, and consequently what is at stake.

The original Voting Rights Act, in its full form, emerged from the civil rights movement, which called for equal voting rights for everyone. Even though the 15th amendment, which was passed after the civil war, extended the right to vote to Black Americans, discriminatory processes in southern states, known as the Jim Crow laws, were used to prevent them from voting. These practices included poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literacy tests, which Black Americans often failed due to high illiteracy as a result of centuries of oppression under slavery. The civil rights movement called for an end to racial discrimination and segregation. President Lyndon B. Johnson was finally spurred to sign the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965 as a result of the actions of this movement, one of the most prominent being the Selma to Montgomery March. This was one of the many protests that arose during the civil rights movement, and saw nonviolent protesters march peacefully and be violently attacked by white state troopers on what is known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, an event garnering national attention and sympathies.

The Voting Rights Act banned the use of discriminatory practices that had long been used in the South and required states with a history of voter discrimination laws to make their voting rules subject to federal preclearance. In other words, new voting rules needed approval from the federal government before implementation. The passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 has greatly increased voter turnout among Black Americans ever since. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 2012 saw turnout among Black Americans equal or even surpass white voter turnout in some Southern states, a radical leap forward from pre-1965 elections

This progress came to a halt with the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, in which the court ruled sections of the act unconstitutional or no longer viable. Section 4b, which sets out which jurisdictions are subject to Section 5’s federal pre-clearance requirement, was deemed unconstitutional, meaning these jurisdictions, mostly located in Southern states, do not have their voting rules federally approved. This court ruling has led to many Republican states implementing restrictive voting laws, citing fraud prevention, despite there being precious few cases of fraudulent voting, if any at all.

The Brennan Center for Justice states that 19 states, at a minimum, implemented restrictive voting measures in 2021 and that one-third of such measures implemented in the last decade were enforced in 2021 alone. Some of these practices have included stricter ID laws requiring photo IDs to be shown when voting, which many Americans do not have access to. Additionally, in some states, the time frame to ask for as well as submit mail ballots has been greatly reduced, as have the number of mailboxes to submit ballots, requiring people to drive hours to reach a mailbox. A reduction of polling stations, voting timeframes, and other such restrictions have been passed in Republican-led states. These restrictive measures directly impacted the 2020 elections, where many relied on mailing in their ballots. In some states, such as Georgia, it is even prohibited to serve food and drink to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots, which often includes hours of standing at times under extreme weather conditions, showing the extent to which votes are being suppressed in the US.

One of the few ways in which this ruling can be altered, and voting rights can be protected, is if Congress implements an amendment to the VRA, which would change the coverage formula that was previously deemed unconstitutional. This has been attempted on numerous occasions since 2013 but repeatedly failed to pass through Congress, largely as a result of polarised partisanship. While the Democrats are pushing for updates to the VRA, Republicans are fiercely blocking them. The most recent attempt to restore the VRA to its full extent was the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named after the late US representative and civil rights pioneer John Lewis. This act includes a new formula of coverage and was passed in the House of Representatives in August of 2021. Despite this, it failed to pass in the Senate in November 2021 after a 50 to 49 vote failed to reach the 60 votes necessary to break the filibuster.

Voting rights in the United States are under attack, and Congress's failure to act is leading to more and more states adopting restrictive voting measures that are racially discriminatory and suppressing the vote, affecting people of colour the most. This represents major backsliding from the US, regressing on hard gained progress and eroding democracy. The 2013 Supreme Court ruling reversed important voting protections, leading jurisdictions and states formerly covered under Section 4b to implement discriminatory policies. This shows how such a clause was vital for the preservation of equal voting rights in the US. The recent blow for the advancement of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act shows a worrying pattern of Republican legislators undermining US democracy. It is vital that legislation including the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, as well as the Freedom to Vote Act, are passed to ensure elections take place freely and fairly and that democracy is preserved, with equal access to voting everywhere and for everyone.

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