Study Guide

Voting Rights Act Introduction

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Voting Rights Act Introduction


Americans, for better or for worse, are an ingenuous people. When confronted with any kind of hard restriction, never doubt that in a short time Americans will have found a dozen loopholes to sail straight over it.

Want a hilarious example? How about the time a dude bought 12,150 pudding cups in order to get free airline miles…and ended up with a cool 1.25 million miles. (This story was later adapted in the film Punch Drunk Love. ) (Source)

Want another one? Okay: a Minnesota bar circumnavigated a smoking ban by declaring that all of its customers were on-set actors…who are legally allowed to smoke inside. (Source)

But it's not all fun, games, and pudding cups. Sadly and predictably, this American knack was applied quickly and judiciously to the 15th Amendment.

In the early days after the Civil War, true to the letter of the law, slaves freed by the 13th Amendment found and flexed the voting rights granted to them by the 15th. But, just like the bully who waits until the teacher leaves to shake you down for your lunch money, Southerners sprung to put the kibosh on the Black vote as soon as federal troops were withdrawn from the South at the end of reconstruction.

Of course, they couldn't just pass a law banning African Americans from voting. That was unconstitutional.

Nothing, of course, was preventing them from passing a ton of technically unrelated laws that, when flexed, functionally ground the Black vote to a halt. In a country where the law of the land clearly stated that all citizens had equal protection under the law, the Jim Crow South reigned supreme and nigh unchallenged for most of the next century.

Always Be Closing (Loopholes)

That, of course, all changed during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. A combination of mass-media coverage and Cold War pressure directed all eyes towards the events unfolding in the South. President Kennedy was making slow and deliberate steps to address the issue, until he was killed in 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

His replacement, Lyndon B. Johnson, had a vision for his newly-minted presidency—he was going to use the political momentum of Kennedy's death to pursue social justice legislation, including—you guessed it—the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is basically just the federal government putting its foot down on any and all voter-restricting nonsense. Literacy tests—the difficulty of which were jacked up astronomically high for African Americans—were explicitly banned, and should any other shenanigans be detected it gives the government the right to send in the Attorney General to make sure everything is on the up and up. Basically, the act gives voters the right to go over the heads of any local voting office and the power to whistle-blow on any possible voting restrictions.

With some shiny new patches on the leaky ship that was the 15th Amendment, its drafters hoped that voting access would, after decades of trying, become universal.

What is Voting Rights Act About and Why Should I Care?

Ninety Years Too Late

Of course, there's the obvious: it's absolutely abhorrent that it took almost ninety freaking years for African American voters to actually get the rights they were promised.

But more than that, the act is a killer example of anti-loophole legislation at work. The law shouldn't be a tool that insiders can tinker with until it lets them do what they please—it's there to provide equal protection. And people are still fishing for loopholes to federal rulings they don't like.

Look at the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of same sex marriage. Immediately after the ruling passed, Louisiana Attorney General said that, since the ruling didn't officially order states to offer marriage licenses to gay couples, they could (and should) just ignore it.

Just like every media franchise from the '80s, this kind of calculated pedantry, the pursuit of the loophole, is undying in American history.

Laws aren't perfect because people sure aren't, but if everyone can see the system being exploited there needs to be legislation to plug those holes up. Johnson had the right idea here, and similar legislation could be used elsewhere to make the government work equally for all citizens.

The Death Rattle of the VRA

Also, there's an incredibly huge elephant in the room that needs to be addressed: the stuff that's going down in the here and now.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote to void one of the key protections of the Voting Rights Act—the requirement of Federal approval for states to change their voting laws. Nine states, the majority of which being Southern states, were suddenly free from immediate Federal oversight, and Texas immediately passed a voter identification bill into law that had been blocked by the Voting Rights Act. While the Federal Government is still able to step in and retroactively enforce the act, enforcement now depends on Congress coming to an agreement on what states to audit.

This leaves us with a somewhat chilling fact on the table: the 2016 election, with its contentious results, was decided with the Voting Rights Act not firmly in play for the first time in fifty-one years. Although it's hard to know yet how much of an impact that made, we do know that:

[There were] sweeping changes in voting rules across a swath of Southern states and several other districts or states that had historically discriminated against minorities.

Those changes included new voter ID requirements, as well as closing or changing locations of hundreds and likely thousands of polling sites, shifts that used to require federal approval.

Dang. We never used to wish that things were more like they used to be in 1965…but it's hard not to feel a little nostalgic and misty-eyed for the Voting Rights Act.

Voting Rights Act Resources


Real Literacy Tests
If you ever wondered if you would have been able to pass a literacy test, give this historical collection of tests a spin and see how you rank.

Movie or TV Productions

This 2014 film covers the voting rights marches that pushed Johnson and company to pass the Voting Rights Act. Give it a watch.

All the Way
This TV drama, based on the play by the same name, dramatizes Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, the fight for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the shift of Southern Democrats to the Republican Party.

Articles and Interviews

How has Voting Changed since Shelby County v. Holder?
This Washington Post article explains what exactly the fallout of that contentious Supreme Court ruling was, and how it affected citizens' voting rights.

What's Left of the Voting Rights Act?
Conversely, this New York Times article discusses just how many teeth this act still has left after the ruling.


A History of Voting Rights
The New York Times' YouTube account gives a brief history of voting rights in the United States.

LBJ's Voting Rights Act Address of 1965
Here's a video of the speech, in case you'd rather see it live.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...