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feel about American race relations: Have we come far enough since the civil rights era that civil rights–era laws are outdated, or is the right to vote still fragile enough that it needs federal law to protect it?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
The poll tax and other monstrosities
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Southern states seeking to keep out black voters had a few tools at their disposal. This map shows the spread of "poll taxes," fees that all citizens had to pay in order to vote — and as it just so happened, the citizens who couldn't afford to pay poll taxes were disproportionately black. Other restrictions included literacy tests (which often involved arcane trivia or confusing wording) disproportionately administered to black citizens. To keep these restrictions from ensnaring poor whites, as well, there was the "grandfather clause" — if your grandfather had been registered to vote, you were in the clear.
Image credit: Snowfire via Wikimedia Commons (licensed via Creative Commons)
Racial terrorism was voter suppression
And if laws didn't work, there was always racial terrorism. During Reconstruction, when the federal government was occupying the South after the Civil War, lynchings were the primary way some white Southerners tried to dissuade black Americans, and white Republicans, from voting. This chart of lynchings reported to the Freedmen's Bureau from 1866 to 1868 shows that lynchings weren't used just to scare black people; they were used to scare black people away from the polls.
Image credit: Christophe Haubursin/Vox
The Selma to Montgomery march, March 21 through 25, 1965
In 1965, only 2 percent of African Americans in Selma, Alabama, were registered to vote (despite repeated voter registration campaigns). The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) decided to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to draw attention to the need for national voting rights legislation.
You know what happened next. The first attempt — the "Bloody Sunday" march — ended with law enforcement officers savagely beating demonstrators as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (which you can see in the top left of the map, by the bend in the Alabama River).
It took a federal judge and the use of federal troops by President Johnson to protect the marchers and allow them to complete the march successfully on March 25.
Image credit: Facts on File
Old Democrats and young Republicans opposed the VRA
If it's surprising to you that the Voting Rights Act split Democratic senators but had fairly unified support from Republican ones, check out Andrew Prokop's feature on how the Democrats went from the party of segregation to the party of Obama. But what's interesting about the Senate vote to pass the VRA is the Republican "no" votes, which foreshadowed the Republican takeover of the white Southern vote. One vote was from was Strom Thurmond, who'd become a Republican in 1964 because he was mad at his party for passing the Civil Rights Act. The other was a 40-year-old Texan named John Tower, who in 1960 had become the first Republican senator from the state since Reconstruction.
Image credit: GovTrack
What the Voting Rights Act did
The Voting Rights Act made the right to vote real for millions of black Americans
This is the only chart you need to see that the Voting Rights Act was effective.
Image credit: Anand Katakam/Vox
It didn't eliminate disparities in voting, but it did mitigate them
The VRA didn't wipe out racial disparities in voter registration (not to mention actual voter turnout) overnight. But it reduced those disparities substantially.
Image credit: Anand Katakam/Vox
The VRA returned black Southerners to elected office
It's not surprising that there weren't any black state legislators in the pre-VRA South — there weren't enough black voters to elect them. What might be surprising (and a little disheartening) is that it took until 1992, nearly 30 years after the VRA was passed, for the number of black legislators to return to Reconstruction levels.
Image credit: EPIC
How the VRA transformed American politics
Democrats lost the South (slowly)...
White voters in the South were already moving to the Republican Party before the VRA was passed. But the legislation certainly didn't help Democrats in the South. It took decades for the impact to be fully felt, though: Democrats maintained control of the House of Representatives for an amazing 40 straight years between 1955 and 1995, in large part because of continued support from conservative Southerners, as shown in this map by Jonathan Davis of Arizona State University.
Image credit: Jonathan Davis
...but gained its black voters
As white Southerners were shifting from a Democratic bloc to a Republican one, black voters were consolidating around the Democratic Party. Both of these shifts were reactions to the civil rights actions of the Johnson administration, though neither was spurred by the VRA itself — they probably would have happened even if Johnson had stopped with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But without the VRA, they wouldn't have had nearly as much impact. An overwhelmingly Democratic voting bloc that is, in much of the country, systematically kept from turning out to vote isn't much of a voting bloc.
Image credit: Akiim DeShay/BlackDemographics.com
Is the Voting Rights Act dying?
A "dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act"
Under the VRA, the federal government can bring a suit anywhere in the country against voter restrictions. But some places had to ask permission to change laws — otherwise known as preclearance — rather than begging forgiveness. This map shows the jurisdictions that needed preclearance as of 2008.
In 2013, in the case Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the VRA's formula for determining which jurisdictions needed preclearance. The majority, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, argued that the formula was a legacy of the 1960s and was no longer relevant.
The decision didn't ban preclearance entirely. It just required Congress to set up a new formula. But given how dysfunctional Congress is, it's hard to imagine how that would happen.
Image credit: Department of Justice
21st-century restrictions focus on access, not on registration
Before the VRA, voter suppression efforts focused on keeping people from registering. Now the laws that voting rights advocates say are suppressive are laws about access to the polls: regulations limiting or eliminating early voting, or requiring certain forms of ID. They've become particularly popular in red states over the past several years.
Image credit: Brennan Center for Justice
Voter fraud: a fake problem that creates a real one
State officials pushing new voting restrictions say they're concerned about voter fraud. But actual voter fraud is vanishingly rare. How rare? This rare.
Image credit: German Lopez/Vox
The easier it is to vote, the more people vote
The argument against laws like voter ID, meanwhile, is that by imposing practical obstacles, and by creating a "chilling effect" that makes would-be voters feel challenged and scrutinized, they make voting seem so hard and inconvenient that it just isn't worth it. This 2014 study (graphed by Sean McElwee) shows there is a correlation: The easier a state makes it to cast a ballot, the higher turnout in that state is.
Image credit: Sean McElwee
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?
"Cracking": diluting the minority vote
The traditional way to disenfranchise minority voters is through "cracking" — splitting up a majority-minority area into multiple districts (with the rest of each district dominated by whites). That's what voting activists accused Texas of doing in 2003, in a lawsuit led by Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis (who ran for governor in 2014). A federal court agreed, and the redistricting plan was scrapped in 2007: the Voting Rights Act at work.
Image credit: MSNBC
"Packing": concentrating the minority vote
The tactic of "packing" can also be used against minority voters — to prevent them from getting big enough to be influential in several districts by packing them all into one safe seat. That's what Virginia Democrats allege happened in the state after 2010, when redistricting kept black voters in the Southern part of the state concentrated in Rep. Bobby Scott's district. The case is still working through the courts, although the state is supposed to be drawing up a new map.
Image credit: Patrickneil
Would eliminating gerrymandering help voting rights?
So if gerrymandering can be so bad for voters of color, getting rid of it — this map from the Center for Range Voting shows one alternative — would be better, right? Not so much. Getting rid of gerrymandering would mean ignoring minority representation entirely. Since people of color are still in the minority in most of the US, that's going to mean that on average, they're not going to be the biggest constituency in a district. Packing and (especially) cracking would still happen by chance.
Image credit: Center for Range Voting
Millions of American citizens can't vote because of their criminal records
In 2012, 5.8 million Americans weren't allowed to vote, because they lived in states that restrict voting for people with criminal records. Unsurprisingly, given the realities of mass incarceration, this disproportionately affects black citizens — 23 percent of the black electorate of Florida is disenfranchised. Politicians in both parties are beginning to call for states to restore the vote to people once they're released from prison — or even for a federal law guaranteeing it.
Image credit: Vox
What does "one person, one vote" really mean?
Next year, the Supreme Court is scheduled to take up a Texas case that could transform voting in immigrant-heavy areas. Right now, voting districts are drawn to count everyone, regardless of whether they're US citizens eligible to vote. Texas wants to change that so that only "eligible voters" — which is to say, US citizens — count in districting. In areas like the ones the above map highlights in Texas and California, that could greatly reduce the size and influence of Latinos. The question: Are voting districts a measure of who is voting, or of who is being affected by the results of the vote?
Image credit: Pew Research Center
Is mandatory voting the answer?
Americans who vote are disproportionately white, rich, and old. (They're also disproportionately Republican; nonvoting Americans would have voted for Obama in 2012 by more than 2 to 1.) Some of them might be nonvoters by choice, but others might not vote simply because they can't make the time or don't have the information they need.
Obviously, these things aren't determined by race. But they do fall disproportionately on voters of color. What if the best way to guarantee voting rights for all were simply to require everyone to vote? Would that help ease racial disparities? Or would it become just another way to penalize African Americans for breaking the law?
Image credit: Vox
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