Voting Rights and Discrimination FAQ

What federal law protects me from discrimination in voting?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects every American against racial discrimination in voting. This law also protects the voting rights of many people who have limited English skills. It stands for the principle that everyone’s vote is equal, and that neither race nor language should shut any of us out of the political process. You can find the Voting Rights Act in the United States Code at 42 U.S.C. 1973 to 1973aa-6.

Where did the Voting Rights Act come from?

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement in the South, a movement committed to securing equal voting rights for African Americans. The action came immediately after one of the most important events of that movement, a clash between black civil rights marchers and white police in Selma, Alabama. The marchers were starting a 50-mile walk to the state capital, Montgomery, to demand equal rights in voting, when police used violence to disperse them. What happened that day in Selma shocked the nation, and led President Johnson to call for immediate passage of a strong federal voting rights law.

What does the Voting Rights Act do?

The Voting Rights Act bans all kinds of racial discrimination in voting. For years, many states had laws on their books that served only to prevent minority citizens from voting. Some of these laws required people to take a reading test or interpret some passage out of the Constitution in order to vote, or required people registering to vote to bring someone already registered who would vouch for their “good character.” The Voting Rights Act made these and other discriminatory practices illegal, and gave private citizens the right to sue in federal court to stop them. In recent times, courts have applied the Act to end race discrimination in the method of electing state and local legislative bodies and in the choosing of poll officials.

Will the Voting Rights Act expire?

No. The Voting Rights Act is a permanent federal law. Moreover, the equal right to vote regardless of race or color is protected by the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has been part of our law since the end of the Civil War. And in case after case, our courts have held that the right to vote is fundamental. Voting rights will not expire.

However, some sections of the Voting Rights Act need to be renewed to remain in effect. When Congress amended and strengthened the Voting Rights Act in 1982, it extended for 25 more years–until 2007–the preclearance requirement of Section 5, the authority to use federal examiners and observers, and some of the statute’s language minority requirements. So, for those sections to extend past 2007, Congress will have to take action. But even if these special provisions are not renewed, the rest of the Voting Rights Act will continue to prohibit discrimination in voting.

What is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act?

Section 5 is a special provision of the statute (42 U.S.C. 1973c) that requires state and local governments in certain parts of the country to get federal approval (known as”preclearance”) before implementing any changes they want to make in their voting procedures: anything from moving a polling place to changing district lines in the county.

Under Section 5, a covered state, county or local government entity must demonstrate to federal authorities that the voting change in question (1) does not have a racially discriminatory purpose; and (2) will not make minority voters worse off than they were prior to the change (i.e. the change will not be “retrogressive”).

Section 5 applies to all or parts of the following states:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Virginia

What kinds of racial discrimination in voting are there, and what does the Voting Rights Act do about them?

The Voting Rights Act is not limited to discrimination that literally excludes minority voters from the polls. Section 2 of the Act (42 U.S.C. 1973) makes it illegal for any state or local government to use election processes that are not equally open to minority voters, or that give minority voters less opportunity than other voters to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice to public office. In particular, Section 2 makes it illegal for state and local governments to “dilute” the votes of racial minority groups, that is, to have an election system that makes minority voters’ votes less effective than those of other voters. One of many forms of minority vote dilution is the drawing of district lines that divide minority communities and keep them from putting enough votes together to elect representatives of their choice to public office. Depending on the circumstances, dilution can also result from at-large voting for governmental bodies. When coupled with a long-standing pattern of racial discrimination in the community, these and other election schemes can deny minority voters a fair chance to elect their preferred candidates.

To show vote dilution in these situations, there must be a geographically concentrated minority population and voting that is polarized by race, that is, a pattern in which minority voters and white voters tend to vote differently as groups. It must also be shown that white voters, by voting as a bloc against minority-choice candidates, usually beat those candidates even if minority voters are unified or cohesive at the polls.

Anyone aggrieved by minority vote dilution can bring a federal lawsuit to stop it. If the court decides that the effect of an election system, in combination with all the local circumstances, is to make minority votes less effective than white votes, it can order a change in the election system. For example, courts have ordered states and localities to adopt districting plans to replace at-large voting, or to redraw their election district lines in a way that gives minority voters the same opportunity as other voters to elect representatives of their choice.

Is it prohibited to draw majority-minority districts?

No. Over 30 years ago the Supreme Court held that jurisdictions are free to draw majority-minority election districts that follow traditional, non-racial districting considerations, such as geographic compactness and keeping communities of interest together. Later Supreme Court decisions have held that drawing majority-minority districts may be required to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

While it remains legally permissible for jurisdictions to take race into account when drawing election districts, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution requires a strong justification if racial considerations predominate over traditional districting principles. One such justification may be the need to remedy a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. While such a remedy may include election district boundaries that compromise traditional districting principles, such districts must be drawn where the Section 2 violation occurs and must not compromise traditional principles more than is necessary to remedy the violation.

What other voting rights laws exist?

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (often referred to as the “motor voter” law) requires states to make voter registration opportunities available when people apply for or receive services at a variety of government agencies, from driver’s license offices to social services agencies and public benefits offices. The law says states must not take voters off the rolls merely because they have not voted, and it requires states to keep their voter rolls up to date by removing the names of voters who have died or moved away. It may be found at 42 U.S.C. 1973gg to 1973gg-10.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 (42 U.S.C. 1973ff to 1973ff-6) requires states to make sure that members of our armed forces who are stationed away from home, and citizens who are living overseas, can register and vote absentee in federal elections.

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 (42 U.S.C. 1973ee to 1973ee-6) requires polling places across the United States to be physically accessible to people with disabilities.

Does the Voting Rights Act protect language minorities?

Yes. The Voting Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate in voting based on someone’s membership in a language minority group. The idea behind the Voting Rights Act’s minority language provisions is to remove language as a barrier to political participation, and to prevent voting discrimination against people who speak minority languages. The Justice Department enforces these protections by bringing lawsuits in federal court, by sending federal observers to monitor elections, and by working with local jurisdictions to improve their minority language election procedures.

Many jurisdictions with people of Hispanic, Native American, and Alaskan Native heritage are covered by Section 5 of the Act.

The Voting Rights Act further protects minority language group members by requiring particular jurisdictions to print ballots and other election materials in the minority language as well as in English, and to have oral translation help available at the polls where the need exists. The formulas for determining which jurisdictions must do this are based on the share of the local population in need. The Act requires bilingual election procedures in various states and counties for voters who speak Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, and more than a dozen Native American and Alaskan Native languages.

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