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What is the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 17, 2024
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The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of civil rights legislation in the US which outlawed literacy testing because the practice was being unfairly used to deny African-Americans their right to vote. Not only did this act end literacy testing, it established an extraordinary regime of federal oversight of the election practices of those states with egregious violations of African-Americans' voting rights.

At the end of the US Civil War, three amendments to the US Constitution &emdash; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth &emdash; were ratified. Among other things, these amendments ended the practice of slavery, granted ex-slaves US citizenship, and forbade the states from denying citizens the right to vote on account of their race or former condition of slavery. During the period of Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877, those states were forced to hold elections in which freed slaves voted. After 1877, when Federal troops left the last of the Southern states, they began exploring different ways to disenfranchise African-Americans &emdash; that is, deny them their right to vote &emdash; without either violating the Constitution or abridging the right of white people to vote. Other than intimidation and violence, two of the more popular methods of denying voting rights were poll taxes and literacy tests.

Poll taxes were simply that — a tax imposed on anyone who voted. These taxes weighed more heavily on the poor, and most freed slaves and their descendants in the south were very poor. They were found to have a discriminatory effect and were outlawed in 1964 with the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.

Literacy tests were far more pernicious. First appearing in the south in the 1890s, the laws establishing them often grandfathered, or exempted from the tests, anyone whose grandfather had voted in any election prior to the Civil War &emdash; in other words, a time when only white males could vote. Anyone who wasn't grandfathered had to pass a literacy test, which usually consisted of the voter being handed a paragraph to read and explain to the testing official. It was found that whites &emdash; even those who couldn't even read &emdash; were provided with simple nursery rhymes and similarly easy material, and always passed. African-Americans, on the other hand, were given complex paragraphs, often sections of the Constitution, and no matter how well they read and explained the text, they were declared illiterate. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed the literacy tests, it didn't end them entirely, and it wasn't until the passage, one year later, of the voting rights act of 1965 that this patently discriminatory practice was finally outlawed.

In addition to outlawing literacy tests for voters, The Voting Rights Act of 1965 imposed a severe regime of federal supervision of those states, all in the south, that had the most egregious patterns of disenfranchisement. In a significant break with established tradition, for example, those states were required to seek approval from the Justice Department before making any changes at all to their election procedures. Other states typically could make whatever changes they cared to, and had to account for them to the Justice Department only if a valid complaint was made.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of civil rights legislation because it not only ended a specific discriminatory practice, it put the states on notice that the rights of citizens to vote was under the special protection of the federal government. While states may still determine who may and may not vote in elections &emdash; there's no Constitutional right to vote &emdash; whatever standards and qualifications they impose must be applied fairly across the board, and may not be influenced by the voter's gender or race, or age if 18 or older. In addition, any qualifications imposed may not disproportionately affect members of any protected group.

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Discussion Comments

By dmarshall — On Feb 02, 2011

One of the things that most Americans don't realize about the Constitution is that it doesn't establish any right of citizens to vote for president or any other office, a fact that's been confirmed in Supreme Court rulings.

The right to vote is managed by each state for its own citizens. The Constitution, however, in the 14th Amendment, provides sanctions against states that deny that right to any male age 21 and over. In the 19th Amendment, it prohibits states from denying voting rights on the basis of sex, and the 26th Amendment prohibited them from denying voting rights on account of age to anyone 18 or older.

Poll taxes and literacy tests, together with the hated "grandfather" exemptions, were cynical attempts by some states to count blacks in their populations for the purposes of apportionment, while still denying them voting rights. the 1965 Voting Rights Act added these reasons to the list of "off-limits" reasons for denying the right to vote. States are permitted to restrict voting rights for other reasons, though.

By comfyshoes — On Feb 02, 2011

Subway11- It is so hard to believe that there had to be laws like this. It is just amazing at the injustices that blacks suffered. I know that the era of the 60’s brought about sweeping changes that were very necessary.

There was a lot of pain in those times with the death of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X.

There was a lot of frustration and acts of violence because blacks felt their leaders died far too soon and did not want the movement to end with their deaths.

By subway11 — On Feb 01, 2011

The Voting Rights act of 1965 was designed to level the playing field regarding blacks and whites when it came to voting.

It really was a response to the violence suffered by blacks in Selma Alabama who were marching right along with Dr. Martin Luther King in order to establish blacks voting rights.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to curb the violence and bring about changes in voting rights for blacks.

It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and it was considered a big deal at the time. Removing the poll tax and unfair literacy tests established the ability for all citizens to vote.

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