Study Guide

Voting Rights Act Themes

By U.S. Congress

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  • Principles

    Because the Voting Rights Act is a law and not a chapter book, it might not have themes the way we're used to seeing them. But there's some good news: the content of the bill absolutely fits into the grand overarching themes we love over here at Shmoop.

    This bill is a reaffirmation of American principles of equality under the democratic rule of law. If one would consider the Constitution to be a bedrock of American principles—and, um, we should—then a law meant to reinforce the constitution would, by proxy, look to restate and support those principles.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Where does the law specifically speak to American values?
    2. What responsibilities does it give the Federal government to uphold those principles?
    3. Is the right to vote the most fundamental American principle, or are there others?
    4. Does the Constitution in a vacuum embody American principles?

    Chew on This

    We're sure everyone in government wants to legislate according to principles they hold dear, but the tricky thing about principles is they're subjective, and up to determination. Laws inevitably reflect that kind of ideological struggle.

    The big brother of principles is ideology; when principles turn into a system of beliefs of how people should be governed. The line between the two is often blurred, but the big scale political ideologies often form into -isms, such as capitalism, communism, libertarianism, socialism, and so on.

  • Equality

    The Voting Rights Act is meant as a harpoon to the Great White Whale of systematic racism in the United States. And we're using that Moby Dick metaphor lightly: the people who drafted this act were sane; Captain Ahab was a little less so.

    The ultimate goal of the Civil Rights Acts of the mid '60s was to work to bring about racial equality in the United States, and equal access to voting would, hopefully, give voters of disenfranchised races more power to affect change.

    Questions About Equality

    1. Are the Federal Government and State Governments given equal power under this act?
    2. Should the Federal Government and State Governments have an equality of power?
    3. Is access to voting enough of an assurance of equality on its own?
    4. Did the Civil Rights Acts of the '60s ensure racial equality?

    Chew on This

    There are two different kinds of equality that are important to understand. The first is equality to access, such as: every American born citizen is legally able to run for president at some point—everyone has the right, and nobody can technically stop you from doing so. The second of these, always more difficult to hit, is equality of results, which is where systemic discrimination always comes into play. Your race, your economic status, where you live, all of these can fundamentally change how hard it is to succeed or not, regardless of what laws are on the book preventing or ensuring your access.

    Building off the previous topic, the Voting Rights Act is far more concerned with equality of results. Equality of access, in theory, should have been ensured with the 15th Amendment, but due to a web of local prejudice and loophole dodging results were effectively denied for a century. Laws need to look past how to promise equal access, but ensure equal results as well.

  • Rules and Order

    You don't get more "rules and order"-y than an actual law. The Voting Rights Act isn't a plea for humanity; this is a law, and has ironclad rules that must be followed.

    Law and order, crime and punishment; read on for a more thorough breakdown of how these are at play.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What is the punishment for States caught suppressing the right to vote?
    2. What is the punishment for a private citizen caught suppressing the right to vote?
    3. How does this law legislate against loopholes?
    4. What voting requirements are explicitly outlawed by this act, and which aren't?

    Chew on This

    This law is a toolkit for the Federal government to ensure that the spirit of the law matches the letter of the law. No all-too-convenient workarounds here.

    This law builds on a long-standing tension in United States legal history; federal laws can't be either ignored or legislated against by state laws.

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