The Voting Rights Act, Its Reauthorization, and Its Relevance Today

A big topic of conversation for 2021 has been the For the People Act (HR1). HR1 is an expansive bill, spanning a number of voter issues including registration, early and mail-in voting, voter roll purges, election securing, campaign finance, and outlines conflict of interest and ethics provisions for federal employees. With the bill being hotly debated by Congress, we are reminded of other contentious battles over American voting rights legislation.

For decades, people of color and other marginalized groups were denied the right to vote and met with violence and intimidation when they challenged the status quo. Civil rights organizers worked at various levels to challenge the discriminatory laws and segregationist attitudes prevalent across America. During the height of the Civil Rights movement the increased brutality inspired greater activism, which in turn led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The landmark legislation sought to combat voting laws that discriminated against voters on the basis of race.

Unfortunately, the wording of the Voting Rights Act did not go far enough to ensure lasting protections of all voters. State politicians again found legal loopholes to exclude marginalized populations from voting, and mechanisms such as gerrymandering became more sophisticated, ensuring politicians’ position within a district by “packing” and “cracking” voting groups into voting districts.

Because the act was not an amendment to the Constitution, it has required numerous renewals since its passage. Civil rights advocates have had to fight to retain the protections of this legislation each time the act has expired and as the constitutionality of the law has been repeatedly challenged in the Supreme Court. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. This amendment allows states to make changes to their voting laws more freely, removing protections for the most vulnerable groups and essentially undermines the integrity of the entire act.

“Rep. John Lewis Pushes For Updated Voting Rights Act”
Here and Now, 17 July 2013
National Public Radio records

Special Publication of the Voting Rights Act
League of Women Voters of Prince George’s County records

Check out the full exhibition Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in American for more items related to the Voting Rights Act, it’s reauthorization, and the history of voting rights in America.

Much of this text was adapted from Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America.

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