Is the Voting Rights Act’s Mission Accomplished?

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For almost 50 years, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has protected the right to vote in the face of discriminatory election practices. Its most controversial provision requires states and municipalities with a history of voter discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing their voting laws. In Shelby v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 4 of the Act, which outlines the process for determining which states must obtain preclearance, is unconstitutional.

In many respects, it is amazing that the voting law remained intact for so long. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was enacted to forbid any "standard, practice, or procedure . . . imposed or applied . . . to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." It applied to all 50 states and was intended to be permanent.

However, other provisions targeting areas of the country where the potential for discrimination was perceived to be the greatest were designed to expire after five years. Section 4 initially defined "covered" jurisdictions as those States or political subdivisions that had maintained a test or device (i.e. literacy and knowledge tests and good moral character requirements) as a prerequisite to voting as of November 1, 1964, and had less than 50 percent voter registration or turnout in the 1964 Presidential election. They included Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Under Section 5, these jurisdiction could not change their voting procedures unless approved by federal authorities in Washington, D.C. Such "preclearance" required a showing that the change had neither "the purpose [nor] the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color."

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