The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) is one of the main American civil rights reforms of the 1960s. It outlawed the literacy tests, poll taxes and other devices that the Jim Crow South used to greatly limit the black vote. It is what Medgar Evers, Freedom Summer, Selma and those fire hoses were mainly about – the right to vote.
President Johnson called the VRA:
a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battleﬁeld
The VRA has not only allowed way more blacks to vote, but also more Native Americans and Latinos: it outlaws practices that in effect limit voting by race or language.
In 2006 Congress, after holding long hearings to see if the VRA was still necessary, voted to extend it by 25 years. Over 90% voted for the extension. A Republican President Bush signed it into law.
On June 25th 2013 the Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, gravely weakened that extension. Chief Justice Roberts said that it was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.” Congress had used facts from 1975 to determine which states and counties need oversight by the Justice Department when changing voting laws and practices.
Congress could update the VRA to satisfy the Court, but that seems unlikely any time soon: the Republicans firmly control the House. The difference between 2006 and 2013 for the Repubicans is one of demographics. The election and re-election of President Obama show that the white vote is no longer enough. That will become more and more true with each passing year.
That is why the Republicans in 2012 passed laws to limit voting – voter ID, cutting back on early voting, changing voting hours, etc. The VRA kept the Deep South, Texas, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, Alaska, New York City and some other places from doing that, but now with the new ruling they can – just in time for 2016.
Blacks and others can still challenge these laws under the VRA in court, that part of the VRA is still in effect, but that takes time and does not always work.
We have been here before: In 1876 the Supreme Court gravely weakened the laws Congress passed to carry out the Fifteenth Amendment, the amendment that gave black men the right to vote. The Court said the laws were not specific enough.
Even the Fifteenth Amendment itself was a fatally flawed compromise: some wanted it to outlaw poll taxes and literacy tests. Blacks wanted national voter registration to protect their right to vote.
By the 1890s the South pushed through laws to limit black voting with poll taxes and literacy tests. The South did this in part to break up an alliance between blacks and poor whites. The Klan did their part by using violence to stop blacks from voting.
Which brings us all the way to the 1960s – and the Voting Rights Act.