Study Guide

Voting Rights Act Main Idea

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  • Main Idea

    15.5th Amendment

    We're going to keep this short and sweet, because it's insane that this Act had to be enacted in the first place. After all, the central point here was something that was thought up three generations prior.

    Under all the proper legal boilerplate is a pretty simple demand: stop illegally restricting African American voters, or any voters based on identity.

    That's it—just follow the 15th Amendment…after ninety—yes, ninety—years of it gathering dust on the shelf.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Why are literacy tests for voting being explicitly outlawed by this act, and what grade level education ensures your right to the vote?
    2. How, statistically, are inspectors advised to figure out if votes could be being suppressed, and is this a fair metric?
    3. Under the act, does anything happen to a ballot official convicted of voter suppression, and how does it compare to the punishment for someone caught committing voter fraud?
    4. What is the main power that this act actually gives the federal government?

    Chew on This

    One of the main effects of this bill is to give individual voters a direct pipeline to the federal government to report any foul play regarding voting. This lets them get around the state institutions that are most hell-bent on silencing them.

    This act is another shot fired in the long-standing political battle over Federal vs. States' rights. While Jackson may have denounced nullification all the way back in 1832, finding legal loopholes to federal rulings became the new form of nullification.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    African-American voters lived in a world of legal discrimination, despite legal discrimination being outlawed by the Civil Rights Amendments almost a century before.

    That clearly needed to change.

    The Text

    There are a ton of different sections (and some of them are confusing), so here's the lightning round summary of the document.

    Deep breaths, here we go:

    No region that runs their own voting can restrict based on race or color. If a requirement for voting (like a test, tax, or what have you) seems to be restricting said voting, the Attorney General—who either takes up the case because they've received over twenty complaints from the region or the ratio of white to non-white voters is way off from the ratio of white to non-white citizens—is able to shut down all a state's restrictions to voting until the region proves that they're going to steer straight from now on.

    The AG also gets to send in examiners, who serve as their eye on the ground in the region in question. Voters disenfranchised by regional polling practices can go straight to these examiners, and the examiners can override the region's voting laws and put that person straight on a list of eligible voters, which the state will be updated on every month.

    States can only get the Attorney General and the examiners out of their hair if they make their case to the U.S. District Court that their voting restrictions will no longer pose a problem to voters of color. In addition, whenever states want to change the laws affecting their voting practices they need to get a thumbs-up from Congress.

    Got it? Yeah; it's a lot.


    States have to make access to voting equitable, or they'll have some federal houseguests until they do.

    And federal houseguests don't just eat all your cereal and use all the hot water. They also make sure your state plays by federal rules.

  • Questions

    1. Why do you think this act, which implicitly exists to protect African American voting rights, mentions that a sixth grade education from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is fine in determining voting eligibility?
    2. Why, in good conscience, do you think the Supreme Court stripped out key protections from the Act?
    3. Should individual states be allowed to set their own voting requirements for national elections, or should there be a unifying set of laws across state lines?
    4. Do you think this act has aged past being useful?
    5. Why do laws even need to be put into place to reinforce existing laws?

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