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

Real Stories of the Impact of the VRA

How has the Voting Rights Act worked in practice? Here are real life stories of the impact the VRA has made on people's lives.

Bayou La Batre, Alabama

The city of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, is a fishing village of about 2,754 residents, with about one-third made up of Asian fishermen and their families, many of whom have lived there since the Vietnam War.

During the 2004 elections, Phuong Tan Huynh, an Asian candidate, ran for City Council. During the city's primary contest, supporters of a white incumbent on the City Council challenged Asian American voters at the polls as part of a concerted effort to intimidate supporters of the Asian candidate. The challenges, which are permitted under state law, included complaints that the voters weren't U.S. citizens or city residents, or that they had felony convictions. Challenged voters are required to complete a paper ballot and a registered voter must vouch for their ballot.

The Department of Justice, pursuant to their mandate under the Voting Rights Act, investigated the allegations of racially targeted challenges. This investigation resulted in the challengers not being permitted to interfere in the general election. The first Asian-American member of the town's City Council was ultimately elected. 

Harris County, Texas

In Harris County, Texas, which encompasses Houston, the Vietnamese population made up 1.7% of the total county population in both the 1990 and 2000 Census. There had never been a Vietnamese legislator in Harris County.

Under the 2002 determinations, Harris County is required under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act to provide bilingual assistance to Spanish and Vietnamese speaking voters. Thus, the county is required to provide all election information it provides in English, also in Spanish and Vietnamese, including ballots, sample ballots, registration information, and the like. They are also required to ensure that there are adequate bilingual poll workers to meet the needs of the language minority communities.

In 2003, Harris County election officials failed to comply with Section 203 by not providing Vietnamese ballots on its electronic voting machines. The county attempted to fix this first noncompliance problem by creating paper ballot templates in Vietnamese, but these were not made available to voters at polling sites. Thus, no bilingual assistance was made available to the Vietnamese voters in Harris County for the 2003 election.

Pressure by the Asian American Legal Center of Texas, a local community-based organization, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, and the Department of Justice resulted in an agreement whereby the County agreed to ensure compliance with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, including a full-time employee to coordinate the Vietnamese election program for all elections within the County; establishment of an advisory group to assist and participate in the Vietnamese language program; and requirement in most cases of a bilingual poll worker where a polling place has more than 50 Vietnamese-surnamed registered voters at the time of an election.

In the wake of these changes, the November 2004 election saw the first and only Vietnamese candidate, Hubert Vo, win a legislative seat in Harris County. 

South Dakota

A number of the voting changes that South Dakota enacted after it became covered by Section 5 in 1975, but which it refused to submit for preclearance, had the potential for diluting Indian voting strength, including and especially the state's 2001 legislative redistricting plan.

In 2001, South Dakota enacted a law dividing the state into thirty-five legislative districts, each of which elected one senator and two members of the state house of representatives. In the 2001 plan, the boundaries of District 27, which included Shannon and Todd Counties, were altered so that Indians comprised 90 percent of the district, while the district was one of the most overpopulated in the state. As was apparent, Indians were "packed," or over-concentrated, in the new District 27. Had Indians been "unpacked," they could have made up a majority in an additional, neighboring house district.

Despite enacting these changes in voting, the state refused to submit the 2001 plan to the Justice Department for preclearance. Alfred Bone Shirt and three other Indian residents from Districts 26 and 27, with the assistance of the ACLU, sued the state in December 2001 for its failure to submit its redistricting plan for preclearance. The plaintiffs also claimed that the plan unnecessarily packed Indian voters in violation of Section 2 and deprived them of an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

In 2004, a federal court invalidated the state's 2001 legislative plan because it discriminated against Indian voters by packing Indians into a single district in order to remove their ability to elect a candidate of choice to the state legislature. In its opinion, the court also found that there was "substantial evidence that South Dakota official excluded Indians from voting and holding office." 

Buffalo County, South Dakota

Ten years after its enactment in 1965, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to include American Indians and expanded the reach of the special preclearance provisions of Section 5 to two counties in South Dakota, Shannon and Todd, home to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian Reservations.

Despite the clear federal mandate, William Janklow, the South Dakota Attorney General at the time, derided the 1975 law as a "facial absurdity" and advised the Secretary of State not to comply with the Act. As a result, from 1976 until 2002, South Dakota enacted more than six hundred statutes and regulations effecting elections or voting in Shannon and Todd Counties, but submitted fewer than ten to the Department of Justice for approval under Section 5 of the VRA.

One of the most blatant schemes to disfranchise Indian voters in South Dakota was employed in Buffalo County with a population of approximately 2000 people, 83 percent of whom are Indian, primarily members of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. Under the decades-old plan for electing the three-member county commission, nearly all of the Indian population -- some 1500 people -- were packed into one district. Whites, though only 17 percent of the population, controlled the remaining two districts and thus the county government.

The system was not only in violation of the constitutional requirement of one person, one vote, but had been implemented and maintained in order to dilute the Indian vote and ensure white control of county government. Tribal members, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project brought suit in 2003 alleging that the districting plan was malapportioned and had been drawn purposefully to discriminate against Indian voters. The case was settled by a consent decree in which the county admitted that its plan was discriminatory and agreed to submit to federal supervision of its future plans under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act through January 2013. 

Dinwiddie County, Virginia

In the Darville Precinct, in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, the existing polling place was destroyed by fire in 1998. Soon thereafter, the County Electoral Board recommended that the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors designate the Cut Bank Hunt Club as the new polling place for the precinct. The board of supervisors adopted that recommendation.

The Hunt Club is a privately owned hunting club with a predominantly Black membership. Seven months after the first election where the Hunt Club was used as a polling place, a petition with 105 signatures was presented to the Board requesting a change in the polling place location from the Hunt Club to Mansons United Methodist Church. The petition stated the desire of the signers that the polling place be more "centrally located." It also noted that Mansons Church had agreed to serve as the polling place and described it as "well lighted, good parking, [and] handicap accessible [sic]."

The overwhelming number of signatories were of White residents (all but three). Also, 23 of the people who signed the petition were not registered in the Darvills precinct, and only 18 of the 105 signatures were of persons who had voted at the Hunt Club in the 1998 election.

Just prior to a hearing on this change, Mansons Church withdrew its offer to serve as a polling place. A few days later, Bott Memorial Church, located at the extreme eastern end of the Precinct, with an overwhelmingly White congregation, offered its building as a polling place. At a hearing on August 4, 1999, the board of supervisors adopted a resolution changing the polling place to Bott Church.

Most Blacks live in the western portion of the precinct. However, because Dinwiddie County is covered by Section 5 of the VRA, they had to submit this change in polling place location to the Department of Justice for a determination that the change would not have a negative impact on minority voters.

In its letter denying approval for the change, DOJ stated that "the sequence of events leading up to the decision to change the polling place to Bott Church tends to show a discriminatory purpose." The Department cited the fact that the decision to change the location to the Bott Church was made after the Darvills polling place was changed to a location operated by Black persons, and after submission of a petition seeking a change that was signed almost exclusively by White citizens.

The denial letter also noted that "[p]rocedural and substantive departures from the normal practice also tend to show a discriminatory purpose," noting that statements regarding the preeminent need for a "central location" for the polling palce were immediately abandoned when the Bott Church site became available. DOJ also concluded that the proposed change "will impose a significantly greater hardship on minority voters than white voters" and that the county provided "no information that the polling place move will not have this disparate impact."

Based on these concerns, DOJ prevented the move of the Darvills polling site from the Hunt Club to the Bott Church. 

Ville Platte, Louisiana

The City of Ville Platte in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana, experienced a dramatic growth in its Black population between 1980 and 2000. According to the 1980 Census, the city was less than a third Black, with the Black voting age population barely over 25 percent of the total. By the 2000 Census, the town had become 56.6 percent Black in total population, with Blacks making up 48 percent of the voting age population. According to the city's voter registration data, Blacks constituted 51.3 percent of the city's eligible voters in 2004.

In 2003 the city proposed to engage in redistricting. The result was a plan that reduced the Black population in one of the 4 majority Black council districts, District F, from 55.1 percent to 38.1 percent . In this plan, significant Black population in this district would be shifted to a district that was already 78.8 percent Black. Because Louisiana is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, this proposed change had to be submitted to the Department of Justice for their determination as to whether it would adversely impact minority voters.

After careful analysis - including looking at the city's past attempts to engage in redistricting where the Department had concluded the city was motivated, at least in part, by a discriminatory purpose -- the Department concluded that the plan to reduce the number of districts where Black voters had an opportunity to elect their candidate of choice from 4 to 3 was designed, at least in part, to make Black voters worse off by eliminating the electoral ability of Black voters in District F. Thus, the DOJ stopped the city from being able to implement this retrogressive change. 

Kilmichael, Mississippi

In 2001, three weeks before election day in Kilmichael, Mississippi, the all-White town council decided to cancel the municipal election. At the time the election was cancelled, the most recent Census numbers showed that the town was 52.4 percent Black, though the mayor and all five members of the Board of Alderman were White, and all council members were elected at-large to four year terms, with a plurality vote requirement. Since 1965, no Black person had ever been elected to the board.

In the run up to the June 2001 election, for the first time, a significant number of Black candidates qualified for the mayoral and board races. In the Board of Alderman race, there were 10 candidates running for the five board positions, four of whom were Black. In the mayoral race, three individuals, one of whom was Black, qualified.

On May 15, 2001, three weeks before the election, with no notice to the community, the board unanimously voted to cancel the general election. The stated purpose for the town's action was to develop a single-member ward system for electing town officials. However, because Mississippi is covered by Section 5 of the VRA, Kilmichael had to submit this plan to the Department of Justice for a determination of whether the change would adversely impact minority voters. The DOJ analysis concluded that the town did not establish that its decision was motivated by reasons other than an intent to negatively impact the voting strength of Black voters. Thus, the Department prevented the town from canceling the election.

In its letter of decision to the town, DOJ noted that the decision to cancel the election came only after Blacks became a majority of the population in the town and only after the qualification period for the election was closed and it became evident that there were several Black candidates for office, and that under the existing at-large electoral method, the minority community had the very strong potential to win a majority of the municipal offices, including the office of mayor.

Freeport, Texas

Until 1992, the city of Freeport, Texas, elected its four-member council on an at-large basis. In that year, it began to use the single-member district system, which it had adopted as part of a settlement of litigation brought on behalf of Latino voters under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Under the subsequent single-member district method of election, minority voters demonstrated the ability to elect candidates of choice in at least two districts.

Just ten years later, however, the city proposed to reinstitute the at-large method of election. But because Texas is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, this change had to be evaluated by the Department of Justice to determine if it would discriminate against minority voters. The DOJ analysis showed that the change back to an at-large system would have a negative impact on the ability of minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice.

In its letter denying approval, DOJ noted that elections in the city are "marked by a pattern of racially polarized voting." Under the at-large system, no minority preferred candidate had been successful until 1990, even though the city is 52 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Black, with 29 percent of the registered voters with Spanish surnames. In the 1990 election, one minority-preferred candidate narrowly won office when several Anglo-supported candidates split the vote. In contrast, in 1992 - after the adoption of single member districts - a Hispanic-preferred candidate won over significant Anglo opposition.

Since then, other minority-preferred candidates have been successful in their wards. However, minority voters remain unable to elect their candidates of choice in municipal at-large elections. A return to at-large council elections, DOJ concluded, "would result in a retrogression of the ability of minorities to exercise the electoral franchise that they enjoy currently." They prevented this retrogressive change from taking effect.  

Town of North, Orangeburg County, South Carolina

In September 2003 the town of North in Orangeburg County, South Carolina proposed to annex a small population of Whites into their town. However, because South Carolina is covered by Section 5 of the VRA, the Department of Justice performed an investigation to determine whether this change would discriminate against minority voters.

Ultimately, the Department concluded that the annexation could not go forward because "race appears to be an overriding factor in how the town responds to annexation requests." The letter denying the town approval to proceed with the annexation indicated that in the early 1990s, a large number of Blacks who reside to the southeast of the town's current boundary made a petition for annexation that was denied, and that the town gave no explanation for the denial. And, the DOJ letter notes that the granting of the petition by this group of Blacks "would have resulted in black persons becoming a majority of the town's population."

Based on their investigation, the Department concluded that the county did not provide equal access to the annexation process for Black and Whites. They blocked the proposed annexation from taking effect. 

Richland and Lexington Counties, South Carolina

In 2004, the Richland-Lexington School District No. 5 in Richland and Lexington Counties, South Carolina proposed to change its method for electing members of the school board. The district is close to 15 percent Black, with a rapidly growing Black population. In the existing system, the seven members of the school board were elected at large to staggered four-year terms. Thus, there were often two or more seats open at any one time, and the highest vote getters in each election were elected to the open seats.

The district sought to change its system to include numbered posts and a majority vote requirement, thus eliminating the ability of a cohesive minority (like Blacks in this case) from electing their candidate of choice. However, because South Carolina is covered by Section 5 of the VRA, the jurisdiction had to get federal approval before this change could be implemented.

The Department of Justice concluded that in this case, where there was strong evidence of racially polarized voting, the use of numbered posts and a majority vote requirement would "prevent black voters from using single-shot voting to elect candidates of their choice." Therefore, the change could not be put into effect and Black voters could continue have a chance to elect their candidate of choice. 

Battleboro, North Carolina

In the mid-1990's, a traditionally African-American community in North Carolina called "Battleboro" was eager to be a part of the economic growth occurring around the city of Rocky Mount. Predominantly White neighborhoods to the west of Battleboro were being annexed by the city, but the city's leaders refused to annex Battleboro.

Annexation would bring municipal services to the residents of Battleboro as well as give them a vote in local elections. Knowing that their taxes would also increase, the residents were still convinced that their future as a community depended on being a part of the city. They did not want to be left behind while areas around them experienced economic growth and the benefits of being part of the municipality.

At the time, Rocky Mount was a majority-white city, although the differential rates of population growth were apparent. City planners projected that by the 2000 Census, Rocky Mount would be a majority-black city. Annexing Battleboro would only increase this trend.

Rocky Mount straddles Edgecombe and Nash Counties, both of which are covered jurisdictions under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, hence, any changes affecting voting in the City of Rocky Mount needed to be must be submitted to the Department of Justice for approval before they could be put into effect.

Residents of Battleboro organized and lobbied the Mayor and City Council members to annex them. One of the key factors that led the city to finally agree to annex this community was the fact that community members were prepared to vigorously oppose any future annexations of white neighborhoods in the Section 5 preclearance process. Thus, the city knew it would face fierce opposition to other development plans if they refused to incorporate the black community. This pressure ultimately led the city to back down and agree to annex Battleboro.

Today the residents enjoy municipal services, the right to vote in city elections, rising property values and a higher standard of living because of their incorporation into the City of Rocky Mount. As of the 2000 Census, Rocky Mount's population was 56 percent African-American. 

Texas (2011 Redistricting)

During the 2011 redistricting, Texas lawmakers attempted to draw political boundaries that discriminated against African-American and Latino voters.

In the past decade, Texas’ population grew by 4.2 million – 89 percent of that growth was minority and 65 percent of that growth was Hispanic. As a result of that overall population growth, Texas gained four new congressional districts. Yet in the 2011 redistricting, Texas did not increase the number of congressional districts in which Latinos or African Americans could elect their candidate of choice.

Because of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Texas’s discriminatory redistricting proposals were not allowed to be used in the 2012 election cycle. The federal district court concluded that the Congressional and Senate maps were enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose against African-American and Latino voters and that the state House plan reduced minority voting strength in violation of Section 5.

Natchez, Mississippi

In 2011, the city of Natchez, Mississippi proposed a redistricting plan that reduced the percentage of African-American voters in one ward (Ward 5) by 6 percent and placed these voters into the three wards that were already majority African-American. This change decreased the Black voting-age population in the impacted ward from almost 53 percent to under 47 percent, thus eliminating the ability of Blacks in that ward to elect their preferred candidate.

Fifty-four percent of the voting-age population in Natchez is African-American, and the city is governed by a six-member council of aldermen. Opponents said the proposed plan did not account for population shifts reflected in the 2010 Census.

Natchez has a legacy of drawing ward lines to limit African-American voting strength, including another Section 5 objection in 1984. Since 1990, African Americans in Ward 5 have comprised a significant majority of the city’s population, yet the city has continually taken steps to attempt to reduce the Black population share in Ward 5.

During the redistricting process, the city’s redistricting consultant argued that the move of African-American voters out of Ward 5 was necessary to shore up African-American populations in the other wards in order to protect their ability to elect candidates of choice – even though the other wards had significant African-American populations, including one ward with a 97.5 percent African-American voting age population.

After careful review, the Justice Department concluded that the city’s efforts to reduce the African-American population in Ward 5 were done with a discriminatory purpose. In its letter of objection, the Justice Department said it appeared that “the city has intentionally and unnecessarily reduced the Black [voting-age population] in Ward 5 under circumstances that suggest the black population in Ward 5 would otherwise have been on the verge of exercising an ability to elect their candidates of choice.” The Justice Department found the city’s excuse – that they were trying to shore up populations in other wards – unacceptable, and called it a misapplication of the Voting Rights Act.

Because of the protections afforded by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Natchez, Mississippi did not change its plan and voters in Natchez did not face discrimination. Instead, the power of their vote was protected.

Clinton, Mississippi

In 2011, the city of Clinton, Mississippi, where 34 percent of the population is African- American, proposed a districting plan for its six-member council that (like the existing plan) did not include a single ward where African-American voters had the power to elect their candidate of choice.

After careful review under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department found reliable evidence that the city of Clinton acted with a racially discriminatory purpose in its decision not to create an ability-to-elect ward for African-American voters. The Justice Department concluded that it was “easy” to draw a plan with a compact district with more than 59 percent African-American voters. Such a district would provide African-American voters with the ability to make their voices heard on the city council.

In the wake of the Justice Department’s objection, the city redrew the council district lines, creating, for the first time, a ward where African-American voters have the ability to elect their preferred candidate.

Nueces County, Texas

In late 2011, the county commission in Nueces County, Texas, enacted a redistricting plan that diminished the voice of Latinos at the polls by swapping Latino and Anglo voters between election precincts.

The population of Nueces County is 61 percent Hispanic – an increase of close to 18 percent in the last 20 years – while the county’s White non-Hispanic population has been decreasing. This dramatic demographic shift had resulted in a county commission that had a majority Latino membership since the 1990s. However, four years ago a narrow election resulted in switching the commission to a majority Anglo membership.

Many in the Latino community were concerned that this 2011 redistricting swap was done in order to solidify a traditionally “swing” precinct to continue to elect a Anglo candidate. The precinct that was changed was traditionally known for electing both Anglo and Latino representation.

During the redistricting process, the county commission only considered one plan, which was revised just once, and concerns from the community at public hearings went unaddressed. In previous years, several plans were considered, with one Latino member of the commission remembering plans covering the walls of the Commissioners Courtroom during the redistricting process in 2001. Many said the process was not open enough, and that the real citizens who were impacted, including Latino residents and groups that traditionally participated in redistricting, were shut out of the process or did not have their concerns taken into account.

After careful review of the 2011 redistricting plan, the Justice Department concluded that the county’s actions “appear to have been undertaken to have an adverse impact on Hispanic voters.” The department also noted that the county offered “no plausible non-discriminatory justification” for these voter swaps, and instead offered “shifting explanations” for the changes.

Because of Section 5 the implementation of Nueces County’s 2011 redistricting plan was blocked due to its discriminatory purpose and closed process.

Augusta-Richmond, Georgia

In 2012, the state of Georgia passed statewide legislation that had the sole effect of rescheduling the date for the non-partisan mayoral and commissioner elections for the consolidated government of Augusta-Richmond from November to July, a veiled effort to dilute minority voting strength.

At the time of the legislation was enacted, the Augusta-Richmond commission had three African-American commissioners elected from majority-Black wards, three White commissioners elected from majority-White wards, and a White mayor elected at-large. The mayor and commission were not consulted before the measure was passed by the state legislature. The commission later adopted a resolution opposing the legislation.

Over the years, the African-American population in Augusta-Richmond has gradually increased such that the 2010 census showed that for the first time the voting-age population in Augusta-Richmond is majority Black (50.9 percent).

Moving an election from November to July dramatically decreases overall turnout for local elections – and that decrease is significantly greater for African-American voters. Using 2012 statistics, the Justice Department noted that African-American voters were 55.4 percent less likely to vote in July than in November (74.5 percent in November to 33.2 percent in July), while White voters were only 41.4 percent less likely to vote (72.6 percent in November to 42.5 percent in July).

After analyzing the proposed plan under Section 5, the Justice Department concluded that moving Augusta-Richmond’s mayoral and commissioner elections from November to July would disproportionately impact the turnout of African-American voters. The Justice Department also concluded that there was evidence that Georgia’s actions in adopting this legislation were driven, in part, by a racially discriminatory purpose.

Because of Section 5, this discriminatory change was stopped from being implemented.

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