Voting Rights Act and Voter Suppression


Black voters wait three hours or more to obtain ballots to vote in the November 2012 presidential election. (AP Photo/Detroit News, David Guralnick.)

After the Fifteenth Amendment barring racial discrimination in voting was adopted in 1870, Southern states and others continued to disenfranchise Black voters through poll taxes, literacy tests, and violent intimidation, killing many Black people who tried to vote.

In 1965, high-profile voting rights activism and violent repression in the South led President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act (“VRA”), banning discriminatory qualification laws and requiring jurisdictions with the worst records of discrimination to “preclear” new voting laws with the federal government. Congress reauthorized the VRA in 2006.

In Shelby County, Alabama, officials challenged the VRA’s preclearance requirement and on June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to strike down preclearance because “things have changed dramatically” since 1965: voting tests are illegal, racial disparities in voter turnout and registration have diminished, and “record numbers” of minorities hold elected office. The dissent noted: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

After Shelby County v. Holder, jurisdictions no longer subject to preclearance imposed identification requirements and restricted early voting, which causes long lines at the polls in minority communities and bars poor and minority voters who cannot obtain the requisite identification card.