Voting Rights Act of 1965

A little over 50 years ago in August 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law and thus enforcing the fifteenth amendment and banning discriminatory practices used in many states to prevent black Americans from voting. The journey to the passage of this act was filled with a whole lot of work and protests, much of which was met with violence from white people and communities hell bent on keeping the status quo. The 2014 film Selma highlights one significant protest, the Selma to Montgomery march, and highlights the violence and intimidation that came from police, government officials, and white people.

The act outlawed discrimination that prevented people, particularly black Americans, from voting and unfortunately, voting discrimination was and continues to be very common. The Civil Rights Movement Veterans has a long list of applications, tests, and registration from different states regarding voting and the associated discrimination. But it was very common to have literacy tests or poll taxes or other barriers in many southern states to not allow black Americans from voting while still compiling with the 15th amendment. And if all of that didn’t work, there was still an incredible amount of police intimidation and white terrorism.

The term “grandfathered in” actually has some roots in voting discrimination in some states after the 15th amendment had been passed – the idea being that if you had a grandfather who could vote, you didn’t have to worry about other requirements passed during your lifetime. This allowed for poor and less educated white people to vote without having to pass literacy tests or the like while also keeping black Americans from the polls.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevented any of these discriminatory tactics and had a wide range of impacts. And for decades, the act was renewed and upheld but in 2013, a significant part was gutted by the Supreme Court. This part was Section Four, which required nine states and parts of seven others to get federal approval before changing their voting rights laws. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the dissent for this case, writing about the importance of the Voting Rights Act.

And it was not long before some states that were prevented because of section four of the VRA started making changes to their voting laws. North Carolina’s state House passed a voter ID bill that required people to present government issued photo IDs at the polls. But this bill also included more than the voter ID – it also ended same day registration and eliminated a popular high school civics program. North Carolina isn’t the only state with voter ID laws  – there’s West Virginia, Alabama, Texas, and more.

Voter ID laws have been blocked in the past and many have opposed them for various reasons. One big reason is that these laws (and related legislation) make it more difficult for minority voters to actually vote. Getting several forms of government issued ID can be expensive and prohibitive and even if cost wasn’t an issue, actually getting one can be hard if you don’t live in a county with a DMV and reliable transportation. NPR highlights the fact that those most likely to not have government issued photo IDs are the elderly, people of color, the poor, and young adults aged 18-24 and how getting an ID can be hard. Plus, by eliminating early or absentee voting, there are people who are prevented from voting because they aren’t able to take a day off work to stand in line to vote.

It took a hell of a lot of work (along with many lives because of violent white supremacy) to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 created and approved. To see a significant part of it gutted is disheartening because there are people who are still hell bent on upholding the status quo and have no problem passing laws that make voting harder for some people.

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