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June 26, 2013

A look at 48 years of the Voting Rights Act

WASHINGTON — The voting law that became a major turning point in black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and political power is now outdated, the Supreme Court says.

Whether that’s a marker of racial progress or proof of backsliding will be hotly debated. But neither side denies that remarkable changes were wrought through the nearly half-century-old Voting Rights Act.  

As the issue moves to Congress, a look at the law’s history:

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15th AMENDMENT

The right to vote, for American men at least, was supposed to be guaranteed when the 15th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War.

The amendment says: “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.”

Freed slaves began voting and even winning office, but former Confederate states came up with tactics to evade the 15th Amendment.

These literacy tests, poll taxes and other discriminatory laws, as well as intimidation and violence, continued for decades. In 1940, only 3 percent of eligible blacks in the South were registered to vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nearly a century after the amendment was ratified in 1870, the civil rights movement forced the nation to acknowledge the injustice.

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THE MARCH FROM SELMA

Activists who tried to help blacks register in the South in the 1960s were met with violence. The fatal shooting of a demonstrator by a law officer in Alabama inspired the idea of a march to the state capital on March 7, 1965.

Hundreds of marchers on their way to Montgomery were clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma. TV news cameras captured what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”  

Protesters across the country rallied in support of the marchers. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Selma to lead demonstrations. And President Lyndon Johnson seized the momentum to propel the Voting Rights Act through Congress.

He signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965.

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VOTING RIGHTS ACT

The law outlawed racial discrimination against voters in local, state and federal elections.

Some entire states, as well as counties in other states, were subjected to special federal enforcement, based on a formula used to weigh their record on voting rights. They had to get approval in advance before they could make even minor changes to voting laws, such as moving polling places.

The enforcement provisions were originally seen as emergency measures that might be allowed to expire in 1970 if no longer needed.

But lawmakers extended the provisions in 1970, 1975 and 1982. In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep them another 25 years.

“We’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending,” President George W. Bush said as he signed the legislation.

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NEARLY A HALF CENTURY LATER

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision Tuesday effectively halts enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, unless Congress updates it.

The court said Congress has failed to adjust the law to reflect decades of strides toward racial equality. The United States now has a black president; a black justice sits on the Supreme Court. And 48 years after “Bloody Sunday,” Selma is governed by a black mayor, Chief Justice John Roberts noted, writing for the court’s conservative majority.

The Supreme Court decision means that a host of state and local laws in covered jurisdictions now can take effect without Justice Department approval. Prominent among those are voter identification laws in Alabama and Mississippi.

The other covered states are Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan, are also included.

Enforcement coverage has been triggered by discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Under the law, jurisdictions can break away from federal oversight if they show a clean record on voting rights for 10 years. Towns in New Hampshire were released in March.

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WHAT’S NEXT

President Barack Obama said the Supreme Court decision was a disappointing setback. He called on Congress to act to rectify the situation.

The Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate find few points of agreement these days, however. And Congress did nothing in response to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that warned lawmakers that the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement formula needed to be updated.  

Unless Congress acts, there will be no deterrent to changes that would undermine voting rights, such as redrawing districts to dilute the power of minority voters. Voters can still use lawsuits to challenge such changes.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing in dissent, said throwing out effective enforcement was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

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Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.

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Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ConnieCass

 

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