Why We Need the Voting Rights Act


“The First Vote”, wood engraving by Alfred Rudolph Waud, from the title page of Harper’s Weekly 11 (568) November 16, 1867.

Many of us are too young to remember the 1960s or never experienced the systematic racism found in certain states in that era, so in light of last week’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder which overturned Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, it is helpful to recall the historical context which made the Voting Rights Act an essential part of our democracy.

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Although ratified on February 3, 1870, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century. Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.

Following the jump is an example of a “literacy” test which was used in Louisiana in 1964. On its face (prima facie) the test is “unbiased;” nothing in the test explicitly favors one race over another. However, the test is clearly designed so that no one can truly succeed — especially a would-be black voter with access only to the sort of education provided to blacks in the South at that time. “Designed to put the applicant through mental contortions, the test’s questions are often confusingly worded. If some of them seem unanswerable, that effect was intentional. The (white) registrar would be the ultimate judge of whether an answer was correct.”

Find out if you would have been allowed to vote in Louisiana prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The test follows the jump. Click here for the “answers”.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Part Of Voting Rights Act


These areas with historic patterns of disenfranchisement had been required to obtain pre-approval of certain changes to their voting laws. (Google map by the Washington Post.)

The White House released today the following statement by President Barack Obama on the Supreme Court Ruling on Shelby County v. Holder:

I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act — enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress — has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

As a nation, we have made a great deal of progress toward guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists. And while today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination. I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.

Reaction from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs follows the jump.


Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 at the conclusion of the famous march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery.

JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow:

The fundamental premise of our democracy is that every citizen can cast a meaningful vote and together those votes will create a republic that is representative of the people. Today’s ruling is distressing because it makes it more difficult to ensure the integrity of our voting systems. The Voting Rights Act is one of the most effective civil rights laws in our nation’s history and is still needed. There are great disparities in how Americans vote. Long waiting times, identification requirements, and widely varying registration and voting technologies all affect the way Americans experience their right to vote and tend to have an onerous and disproportionate affect on minority populations. Preservation of the VRA remains essential to our national progress toward a more perfect union. Unfortunately, the decision handed down today undermines the Federal government’s best tool to ensure this progress. We are up to the challenge implicit in this ruling. Congress needs to act to remove the obstacles to the ballot so that no American is denied the right to vote.

JCPA Chair Larry Gold:

Equal participation for all is at the heart of our work as an agency and part of the American Jewish community’s legacy. Our gains have been won through hard work and dedication, and that same spirit will continue to carry us in the work that lies ahead. A federal role in ensuring a fully participatory democracy is still necessary and a strong VRA remains a vital interest. The JCPA has a long history of advocating for voting rights. Today we recommit ourselves to the principles of the VRA we first advocated for decades ago. We find the same resolve today to work with Congress and the President to repair the Voting Rights Act that we had in the 1960’s when we worked with Congress and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on this very bill. We stand committed to ensuring all American citizens a meaningful vote and the systems are in place to root out discrimination from our political process.