The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights 101 - Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund - 2001

Voting Rights

THE RIGHT T0 VOTE is one of the most cherished rights of citizenship in the United States and the basis of our democratic form of government. As the Supreme Court stated over a century ago in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the right to vote is "a fundamental political right, because preservative of all rights."

YET, THROUGHOUT OUR HISTORY, too many Americans have been denied that basic right. Women and African Americans in the early part of the 20th century, African Americans in the 1960s and Latinos in the 1970s, Native Americans in the 1920s and Asian Americans following World War II all had to fight to be included in the American polity.


THE FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution, adopted in 1870, guarantees the right to vote regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Yet, the amendment alone has not ensured minorities the right to vote. With the collapse of Reconstruction and the imposition of government-sanctioned segregation laws, many southern states used a variety of techniques -- including literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, threats, and violence -- to keep African Americans from voting. The drive to win meaningful access to the franchise was therefore among the civil rights movement's top priorities, and first achieved major success with the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

UNTIL 1965, federal laws did not challenge the authority of states and localities to establish and administer their own voting requirements. In Mississippi, for example, at the end of the 1950s, 45% of the state's population was African American, but only five percent of that population was registered to vote. The state also led the nation in beatings, lynchings and "disappearances" of African Americans.

IN THE EARLY 1960S, the drive for voting rights became a central part of the major southern-based civil rights organizations' strategy -- the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Martin Luther King Jr., and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by Bob Moses, John Lewis and James Forman.

IN 1962, with a $5,000 grant from the Voter Education Project, SNCC went into Mississippi to organize a voter registration drive. SNCC, SCLC, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which launched the Freedom Vote campaign in 1963.

IN 1964, with increasing national attention focused on the civil rights drive in the South, COFO launched "Freedom Summer," a major drive to educate and register voters, including the use of northern volunteers. On June 20, 1964, 200 recruits left from Oxford, Ohio for Mississippi. On June 21 three workers -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- were reported missing. The long search for their bodies (they were not found until Aug. 4) focused national attention on the civil rights movement and helped build public opinion in support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964.

THE MOST CRITICAL CAMPAIGN in the fight for voting rights took place in Selma, Alabama in 1965 when Martin Luther King, Jr., joined the drive. Congress began considering voting rights legislation as activists mounted an intense campaign. Dr. King was jailed in February. Later that month, an African American marcher -- Jimmie Lee Jackson -- was murdered by police, and activists planned a 50-mile march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. The march was to begin on March 7, led by Hosea Williams of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC. The 600 marchers were met by a sea of Alabama state troopers, many of them mounted on horses and swinging clubs and firing tear gas. The day became known as "Bloody Sunday."

ON SUNDAY, MARCH 21, a new Selma-Montgomery march began, this time with hundreds of white northerners as well. The final day, 25,000 marchers walked into Montgomery. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or language minority status (i.e., Asian Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Spanish-speakers). Section 2 of the Act applies across the country and bars the use of voting practices or procedures that discriminate against members of such protected classes. For example, Section 2 has been used successfully to attack restrictive voter registration requirements and the locations of polling places at sites inaccessible to minority voters.

SECTION 5 of the Act requires federal "preclearance" before covered jurisdictions (i.e., specified jurisdictions with a history of practices that restrict minority voting rights) may make changes in existing voting practices or procedures. The Act also provides the Department of Justice with the authority to appoint federal observers and examiners to monitor elections to ensure that they are conducted fairly. Initial enforcement efforts targeted, among other things, literacy tests, poll taxes, and discriminatory registration practices.

IN 1975, the Voting Rights Act was amended to address the voting rights of language minorities. These provisions were added to the Act based on Congress' determination that voting discrimination against language minorities "is pervasive and national in scope." Sections 4 and 203 of the Act apply in jurisdictions with significant numbers of voters with limited or no English proficiency and require such jurisdictions to provide voting materials and assistance in relevant languages in addition to English.

IN 1980, H0WEVER, the Supreme Court dealt voting rights enforcement a significant setback. In City of Mobile v. Bolden, the Court narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment  to the Constitution, as well as the Voting Rights Act, holding that the government must prove that any change in voting practices that harm minorities was actually motivated by discriminatory intent in order to establish a violation.

WHEN IT RENEWED the Voting Rights Act in 1982, Congress overturned the Bolden ruling despite the objections of the Reagan administration. The 1982 amendments make clear that it is unnecessary to prove that certain registration and voting practices have been established with discriminatory intent. Instead, section 2 is violated if a court concludes that a voting practice has the effect of limiting the electoral influence of minorities, even if not motivated by bias.

A SECOND 1982 AMENDMENT allows people who are blind, disabled or illiterate to be assisted in voting by anyone of their choice (other than their employer or an officer or agent of the voter's union). This is a general provision and applies nationwide.

ALTHOUGH the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its amendments have brought an end to many voting injustices, discriminatory voting practices continue to exist. Today, these usually take the form of creative methods of establishing voting districts that dilute the voting power of minority groups.

ESTABLISHING unusually large voting districts in areas with a geographical concentration of certain minority groups, for example, can discriminate against those groups by burying them within a larger white voting majority. This dilutes the voting power of minority groups that could otherwise constitute an influential voting bloc. Similarly, some civil rights groups have challenged "at-large" districts that lead to discrimination against minorities. Smaller districts can also be drawn in such a way that the voting power of a minority group is diluted by dividing a geographical concentration of minorities into several districts that are predominantly white. Minority voting power may also be diluted by encompassing an extremely large minority group into one district, rather than allowing that group to have an influence over several districts.

FOLLOWING THE 1990 Census and the resulting round of redistricting, the number of black representatives nearly doubled in Congress in 1992, with Latinos also making significant gains -- demonstrating the Act's ability to help address the dilution of minority voting power.

HOWEVER, IN THE EARLY 1990s, the Supreme Court issued two decisions that threatened to roll back many gains in minority voting power. In Pressley v. Etowah County Commission in 1992, the Court gave more freedom to local governments covered by the Voting Rights Act to make changes in their political structure without approval -- or clearance -- from the federal government. At issue in the case were actions taken by two Alabama counties to limit the responsibilities of county commissioners once African Americans had finally been elected to those positions. The effect of the changes was to block African Americans from exercising the power once wielded by whites.

THE 1993 RULING, Shaw v. Reno, called into question legislative redistricting plans that create districts likely to elect a member of a minority group. The sharply divided Court ruled 5-4 that North Carolina's 12th Congressional District, which gave the state its first African American member of Congress since Reconstruction, was so "bizarrely shaped" that it could violate the rights of white voters. Such "bizarre" districts, the majority suggested, could trigger strict scrutiny even though white voters could demonstrate no specific harm to themselves. In other words, an individual white voter could challenge a redistricting decision by simply alleging that race was a decisionmaking factor in drawing district lines -- even absent evidence that the white plaintiffs' ability to participate had been impaired or that their votes had been diluted.

SHAW V. RENO and its progeny have created a litigation vehicle that threatens to undermine much of the increase in minority representation in Congress and in state legislatures since the 1990 reapportionment cycle. Each state will again redraw its congressional and state legislative districts in light of the 2000 Census. This process will require careful observation to ensure that non-white and non-Anglo voters have a realistic opportunity to elect the representatives of their choice.

VOTING RIGHTS ADVOCATES secured a significant legislative victory, on the other hand, in 1993 with the enactment of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) -- also known as the "Motor-Voter" bill. The NVRA has been successful in enlarging the pool of voters by requiring states to provide voter registration materials at departments of motor vehicles, offices that provide public assistance and/or disability benefits, and Armed Services recruitment offices; the Act further encourages the use of additional government offices for voter registration purposes as well. Moreover, the NVRA permits voters to register by mail for federal elections. The Act's success in expanding voter registration is confirmed by Federal Election Commission data reporting that in 1998, an additional 7 million voters were registered under the NVRA compared to 1994 numbers.

THE NOVEMBER 2000 ELECTIONS raised yet a new set of concerns about minority voting rights. Across America, voters -- especially minority voters -- reported that they had been effectively denied the franchise in a variety of ways. These included allegations that minority voters faced a significantly greater risk that their votes would not be counted accurately, due to disproportionate use of outdated and inaccurate equipment in minority neighborhoods. Asian American, Haitian American, Latino, and other language minority voters reported that they were denied language assistance to which they were entitled. Eligible minority voters reported that they had been inappropriately "purged" from voting lists. Many jurisdictions use equipment that is inaccessible to voters with disabilities. Because of these and other irregularities, civil rights advocates are calling for federal election reform legislation to address both procedural and technological barriers to voting participation.

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