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What is the Voting Rights Act?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”) was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, with the goal of eliminating racial discrimination in voting.

The VRA was drafted mostly in response to the way African Americans were disfranchised — denied the right to vote — in many Southern states. In an effort to fix this, the act sought to codify the 15th Amendment’s constitutional guarantee that the government won’t deny a citizen the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The new law provided for federal oversight of elections in jurisdictions that had histories of racial discrimination, and it banned literacy tests and other tools that some jurisdictions had used to indirectly keep African Americans from voting. It also created legal remedies to fight discriminatory voting practices.

In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, a 1966 decision that upheld the VRA, the Supreme Court explained why the law was necessary to combat the many efforts to keep African Americans from voting:

Congress had found that case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat wide-spread and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinate amount of time and energy required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered in these lawsuits. After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims.

Most provisions of the VRA, including the guarantee that no one may be denied the right to vote because of his or her race or color, are permanent. But the law was drafted in such a way that some enforcement-related provisions have required reauthorization. Congress voted to amend and extend these provisions in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006.

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