The Intrinsic Failure of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Intrinsic Failure of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Intrinsic Failure of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

By Hannah J. Smith | Clark University ‘19 | CDM Vice President

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted former slaves the rights to equal citizenship under the constitution[1.], this came after the 13th Amendment, which freed them from slavery. It also came before the 15th amendment which granted all persons the right to vote. You and I both know that it did no such thing, but that is a topic for another day. The Reconstruction Era essentially re-enslaved[2.] those who had recently become free and subjugated their bodies.. During the course of the next hundred-or-so years, institutions were created and reinforced to ensure that Blacks were not granted equal protection under the law and that they were barred from registering to vote or casting a ballot and could be subject to brutality, intimidation or violence if they tried to do either.

In the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement came the passage of one of the most crucial pieces of legislation this country had ever seen. The Voting Rights Act or VRA of 1965[3.] was signed on August 6th by President Johnson. The VRA was meant to cease the devious, violent and unconstitutional ways in which Whites would prevent Blacks from registering to vote or casting a ballot in the American South. Racial or language barriers were indeed not justifiable reasons to prevent someone from voting, under the VRA.

The US Congress renewed and upheld the VRA a total of 4 times after 1968, most recently in 2006. The 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, found Section 5 of the VRA is unconstitutional in a controversial 5-4 decision. Section 5[4.] required certain state and local jurisdictions (the ones who had previously discriminated and disenfranchised minority voters the most) to obtain pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or a federal court before changing any of their election laws. This included redistricting, voter eligibility requirements, early voting, mail in ballot, voter ID laws, etc.

Chief Justice Roberts does not believe that America’s pervasive history of voting discrimination is still applicable to modern society, as we have now achieved some sort of “post- racial” country. The opinion[5.] on this case focussed on how the Voting Rights Act was no longer relevant to the strives minorities have made, in terms of voting rights and civic participation.

 

At the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that. The question is whether the Act's extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements. As we put it a short time [**660] ago, "the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs." Northwest Austin, 557 U. S., at 203.” (Chief Justice Roberts, Shelby County vs. Holder; 2013).

If the VRA is no longer relevant and is too far-reaching, we default to the 15th Amendment as precedent, which was the 3rd amendment passed during the Reconstruction Era. An era which, essentially, re-enslaved newly freed Blacks and an era from which Jim Crow was born. If the 15th Amendment was good enough to begin with, there would have never been any need for a Voting Rights Act.

My humanity, my most fundamental right as an American and something my ancestors literally died for, is rooted in revocable congressional legislation and is not stitched into the fabric of our nation. When Section 5 was gutted, 9 states were relieved of their obligation to go through the pre-clearance process and in 14, more restrictive and deliberate acts were restrictions were imposed almost instantly.

The nature of the Voting Rights Act as a congressional act as opposed to a constitutional amendment has failed millions of minority voters. The lingering effects of Shelby County vs. Holder decision will continue to fail more as time goes on and it is unclear how this impacted the 2016 election in key states, but its effects may have been substantial.[6.] Who is the Attorney General of the United States tasked with investigating and, if need be, pursuing instances of injustice, disenfranchisement and voter intimidation both on an individual and systemic level? Who is heading our Department of Justice?

Someone so blatantly unjust that the NAACP gave him and “F” rating. Coretta Scott King wrote a letter[7.] in opposition to his nomination to a Federal Judgeship. The very person blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee from becoming a Federal Judge in the 1986[8.] due to allegations of racism.The same person who had said that “It [the VRA] is intrusive…,[it] changed the whole course of history…[in the American South]”[9.]... Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. And we should all be outraged.


  1. US Const. amend. XIII, XIIII, XV, sec. 3
  2. Mizuchi, Susan. "Racism as Opportunity in The Reconstruction Era." North Carolina Scholarship. University Press Scholarship Online, 12 Dec. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
  3. "History Of Federal Voting Rights Laws." History of Federal Voting Laws. The United States Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
  4. "About Section 5 Of The Voting Rights Act." About Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The United States Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
  5. "A Guide to the Supreme Court Decision on the Voting Rights Act." The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 June 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
  6. Liptak, Adam. "Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 June 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017
  7. Lowery, Wesley. "Read the Letter Coretta Scott King Wrote Opposing Sessions’s 1986 Federal Nomination." The Washington Post. WP Company, 10 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
  8. Phillips, Amber. "That Time the Senate Denied Jeff Sessions a Federal Judgeship over Accusations of Racism." The Washington Post. WP Company, 10 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
  9. Saul, Josh. "Trump Justice Department Likely to Shift Approach to Voting Rights." Newsweek. N.p., 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

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