During the Reconstruction Era
following the Civil War, Congress passed the 15th Amendment which ensured that people could not be denied the right to vote because of their race. In other words, the 15th Amendment granted non-white men in America the right to vote!
However, in the decades leading up to The Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black people in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting, including:
- Poll taxes – which levied fees in order to vote; making it nearly impossible for impoverished Black people to cast their ballot.
- Literacy tests – a test given to determine if you are eligible to vote. These tests were administered by White men, and were often manipulated in order to make it impossible for Black people to vote, and
- Other bureaucratic restrictions to obstruct and deny them the right to vote.
Along with the difficulties mentioned above, Black people also faced harassment, intimidation, financial consequences, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few Black Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally.
1964 – Numerous demonstrations were held, and the considerable violence that erupted brought renewed attention to the issue of voting rights. The murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and the attack by state troopers on peaceful marchers in Selma, AL, gained national attention and persuaded President Johnson and Congress to initiate meaningful and effective national voting rights legislation.
1965 – On August 6, 1965, the combination of public unrest to the demonstration conflicts and President Johnson’s political skills compelled Congress to pass the voting rights bill which essentially outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the civil war as a prerequisite to voting. By the end of 1965, 250,000 new Black voters are registered; one-third of them by federal examiners.
1970 – President Richard Nixon signs an extension of the Voting Rights Act. This also lowered the voting age in the country to 18.
1972 – Barbara Jordan (Houston, TX) and Andrew Young (Atlanta, GA) are the first African Americans elected to Congress from the South since Reconstruction.
1975 – Another extension of the Voting Rights Act is signed by President Gerald Ford. The extension of this act permanently ends literacy tests nationwide and provided language assistance for “language minority” voters. The law also extends the “preclearance” provisions that require courts to monitor states with a history of discrimination.
1982 – Amidst controversy among civil rights groups and grass-roots lobbying, President Ronald Reagan signs a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act.
1990 – Due, in part, to the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, the number of Black elected officials in Georgia grows to 495 in 1990. Georgia only had three black elected officials prior to the Voting Rights Act.
2006 – Congress extends Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for an additional 25 years. Section 5 requires all 16 states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to approve election-related changes with the federal government before the changes are made.
2010-2016 – From 2010 through 2016, several Southern states (Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana) have objected to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
2011 – A record number of restrictions to voting were introduced in state legislatures nationwide, such as:
- Photo ID requirements
- Cuts to early voting
- Restriction to vote registration
Many of these states have histories of voter discrimination and are covered under the Voting Rights Act. Laws restricting the rights to vote in Southern states are found to disproportionately impact minority voters.
2013 – Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court Case. In this case, the Supreme Court’s ruling resulted in the elimination of PRECLEARANCE, or the rule that states with a history of voter discrimination had to get permission from the federal government before making changes to voting laws. The result of this decision is exactly what you would expect: in many states it became harder for poor and minority voters to cast ballots.
Lets make sure that we all understand this point. Before 2013, the federal government required states with a history of voter discrimination to ask permission before making any changes to voting rules. This process was called Preclearance. The Supreme Court, the most powerful court in America, eliminated Preclearance in 2013 during the Shelby v. Holder case. This allowed states with a history of voter discrimination to change their voting rules to once again allow for voter discrimination. We will discuss this more in the following section.
As you can see in the maps below, most states that were under federal watch for voter discrimination passed discriminatory laws after the Shelby v. Holder decision.
You can get a more detailed look at laws passed in individual states in response to Shelby v. Holder here or at the link below.