The 15th Amendment prohibits any state (or the federal government) from denying citizens the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." But it took the Voting Rights Act, signed on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon B. Johnson, to make the right to vote real for African Americans in the South.
The Voting Rights Act changed the course of American politics in the 20th century. While it's been bipartisan for most of its history, how you feel about the Voting Rights Act today is a test of how you feel about American race relations: Have we come far enough since the civil rights era that civil rights–era laws are outdated, or is the right to vote still fragile enough that it needs federal law to protect it?
The Supreme Court, when it struck down a key section of the VRA in 2013, signaled that it thinks the Voting Rights Act is a relic of a more intolerant past. But the history of the law makes it clear that, in fact, the question that made the VRA necessary still isn't settled: What happens when an ostensibly colorblind law ends up disproportionately disenfranchising people of color?
Passing the Voting Rights Act
What the Voting Rights Act did
How the VRA transformed American politics
Is the Voting Rights Act dying?
The problem of gerrymandering
One provision of the VRA makes it illegal for states to draw voting districts as a way to disenfranchise minority voters. But there's no law against partisan gerrymandering; it's been standard operating procedure for centuries. So now that African-American voters are an overwhelmingly Democratic voting group — and, increasingly, Latinos are as well — what's the difference between redistricting to harm Democrats and redistricting to harm voters of color?