The USA has introduced a new voter ID law nationwide with deep implications to potentially shut out many Native Americans and thousands living in urban communities from the polls. A strict rule on the collection of absentee ballots is being challenged as a form of voter suppression. And officials in Georgia are scrubbing voters from registration rolls if their details do not exactly match other records, a practice that voting rights groups say unfairly targets voters living in poverty areas.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the Civil Rights Movement on August 6, 1965, and Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Act secured the right to vote for all Americans of various skin pigment throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the US Justice Department, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
During President Trump’s term, there are signs of change: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has filed legal briefs in support of states that are resisting court orders to rein in voter ID requirements, stop aggressive purges of voter rolls and redraw political boundaries that have unfairly diluted minority voting power, all practices that were opposed under President Obama’s attorneys general. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department would often go to court to stop states from taking steps like those.
The Act contains numerous provisions that regulate elections. The Act’s “general provisions” provide nationwide protections for voting rights. Section 2 is a general provision that prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against Americans. Other general provisions specifically outlaw literacy tests and similar devices that were historically used to disenfranchise racial minorities.
The Act also contains “special provisions” that apply to only certain jurisdictions. A core special provision is the Section 5 preclearance requirement, which prohibits certain jurisdictions from implementing any change affecting voting without receiving preapproval from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S . District Court of D.C that the change does not discriminate against Americans who are protected for discrimination. Another special provision requires jurisdictions containing significant language minority populations to provide bilingual ballots and other election materials.
Section 5 and most other special provisions apply to jurisdictions encompassed by the “coverage formula” prescribed in Section 4(b). The coverage formula was originally designed to encompass jurisdictions that engaged in egregious voting discrimination in 1965, and Congress updated the formula in 1970 and 1975. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula as unconstitutional, reasoning that it was no longer responsive to current conditions. The Court did not strike down Section 5, but without a coverage formula, Section 5 is unenforceable.
In the national battle over voting rights, the fighting is done in court, state by state, over rules that have the potential outcome to sway elections. The Justice Department’s recent actions point to a decided shift in policy at the federal level: toward an agenda embraced by conservatives who say they want to prevent.
The United States Constitution granted each state complete discretion to determine voter qualifications for its residents. After the Civil War, the three Reconstruction Amendments were ratified and limited this discretion. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) prohibits slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) grants citizenship to anyone “born or naturalized in the United States” and guarantees every person due process and equal protection rights; and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) provides that the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” These Amendments also empower Congress to enforce their provisions through “appropriate legislation”.
To enforce the Reconstruction Amendments, Congress passed the Enforcement Acts in the 1870s. The Acts criminalized the obstruction of a citizen’s voting rights and provided for federal supervision of the electoral process, including voter registration. However, in 1875 the Supreme Court struck down parts of the legislation as unconstitutional in United States v. Cruikshank and United States v. Reese. After the Reconstruction Era ended in 1877, enforcement of these laws became erratic, and in 1894, Congress repealed most of their provisions.
Southern states generally sought to disenfranchise various Americans during and after Reconstruction. From 1868 to 1888, electoral fraud and violence throughout the South suppressed the melonnated vote. From 1888 to 1908, Southern states legalized disenfranchisement by enacting Jim Crow laws; they amended their constitutions and passed legislation to impose various voting restrictions, including literacy tests, poll taxes, property-ownership requirements, moral character tests, requirements that voter registration applicants interpret particular documents, and grandfather clauses that allowed otherwise-ineligible persons to vote if their grandfathers voted (which excluded many African Americans whose grandfathers had been slaves or otherwise ineligible). During this period, the Supreme Court generally upheld efforts to discriminate against Americans. In Giles v. Harris(1903), the Court held that irrespective of the Fifteenth Amendment, the judiciary did not have the remedial power to force states to register all Americans to vote.
In 1957, Congress passed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction: the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This legislation authorized the Attorney General to sue for injunctive relief on behalf of persons whose Fifteenth Amendment rights were denied. Further protections were enacted in the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which allowed federal courts to appoint referees to conduct voter registration in jurisdictions that engaged in voting discrimination against all Americans.
The justice department has launched no new efforts to roll back state restrictions on the ability to vote, and instead often sides with them. Under the Sessions department’s most prominent voting-rights lawsuit so far forced Kentucky state officials last month to step up the culling from registration rolls of voters who have moved.
Mr. Sessions, during his confirmation hearing, was asked about Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in 2016. Mr. Sessions said he did not know what Mr. Trump meant by that statement, and then added, “I would just say that every election needs to be managed closely, and we need to ensure that there is integrity in it. And I do believe we regularly have fraudulent activities occur during election cycles.”