The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is widely considered one of the most influential pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed and is widely credited with giving African Americans equal access to voting booths across the country.
But what was it that inspired such a revolutionary law, and how did it impact American politics? The Voting Rights Act (VRA) is widely known as the nation’s most successful civil rights law, but how many people know exactly why it was so important, and how it changed American politics?
The VRA has a long history dating back to the Civil War; however, it underwent a major overhaul in 1965 when Congress passed an updated version that increased its effectiveness.
History of the Voting Rights Act
The history of the Voting Rights Act dates back to the height of the Civil Rights Movement when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began pushing for voting reforms. In 1957, he and other African American leaders began pushing for a constitutional amendment that would give African Americans the right to vote.
What began as a movement for equal voting rights soon grew into an even larger push for full equality. Dr. King and his fellow civil rights leaders argued that without full equality, African Americans would continue to be oppressed in nearly every aspect of society.
They argued that if African Americans had the right to vote, they would be able to vote for increased representation in government and have a more equal impact on the issues they cared about.
Why was the VRA passed?
The real impetus behind the VRA came in the early 1960s when African American voters began to demand to be treated like everyone else when it came to voting. Unfortunately, it was not until the 1964 Presidential Election that the public began to hear about the problems that African Americans were having when trying to vote.
At the time, voter turnout for African Americans was significantly lower than for whites and in some areas, the turnout was as low as 5%.
How does the Voting Rights Act work?
The Voting Rights Act requires all states with a history of discrimination in voting to receive approval from the Department of Justice before changing their voting laws.
The DOJ then reviews the new laws and determines if they violate the 14th or 15th Amendment that protects the right to vote for all Americans. If the law is found to violate the Constitution, it cannot go in effect until the violation is resolved.
This type of review has been used to block numerous laws that have sought to take power away from African Americans, like a North Carolina law that sought to end early voting in African American neighborhoods.
The Impact of the VRA
The VRA has been credited with raising the number of African Americans who vote and electing more African Americans to office across the country. Before the act was passed, African Americans made up 5% of eligible voters, but after the VRA was passed they made up 8% of the electorate.
Additionally, the VRA had a major impact on the number of African Americans who hold office across the country, as there are now black people in congress, state legislatures and city councils at a higher rate than there were before the act was passed.
Ongoing Issues with the VRA
The impact of the VRA is undeniable, but some issues are being raised about the law that needs to be resolved. The biggest and most obvious issue is that the VRA is set up as a system that requires a state to receive approval from the DOJ before changing its voting laws. Unfortunately, the DOJ has been severely underfunded and understaffed since its implementation.
As a result, they have been able to review only a small percentage of the laws that local jurisdictions have passed. Additionally, the law has been used to block new voting laws in many states, but the law itself is not always clear as to what laws are covered by the law.