AP: Things to Know About the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Things to Know About the Voting Rights Act of 1965

By Jesse Holland, Associated Press

On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which has been called the single most effective civil rights law ever passed by Congress.

Because of the Voting Rights Act, millions of minorities have exercised their right to vote in states that previously hindered them through tactics such as poll taxes, literacy tests, civics quizzes or violence. President Barack Obama will mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Thursday.

Here are a few things to know about the Voting Rights Act:


During a January 1965 meeting at the White House, President Lyndon B. Johnson told Martin Luther King Jr. that he didn't think that, after pushing the Civil Rights Act through the year before, he could get Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act too, said former Ambassador Andrew Young, who attended that meeting with King. After leaving the White House, King said, "We've got to get this president some power," Young recalled, laughing. Johnson used the voting rights bill as his response to the "Bloody Sunday" police beatings of civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama, that March. In his speech before a joint session of Congress — which many historians consider one of Johnson's most eloquent — Johnson even used the phrase, "We shall overcome," borrowed from the civil rights movement.


A key requirement of the law set up a process known as "pre-clearance," which required some states and individual jurisdictions to obtain federal approval of changes to voting laws, to ensure they did not have a discriminatory effect. The states most affected were primarily in the South, although some jurisdictions in other states from Alaska to New York were also required to get federal pre-clearance of voting law changes.


According to the ACLU, 250,000 new black voters were registered by the end of 1965, with one-third of them by federal examiners. "Turnout among black Southerners exceeded that of their white counterparts in four of the 12 presidential elections since 1965, and nationwide black turnout clearly exceeded white turnout in presidential elections in 2012 and perhaps in 2008," according to a new report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.


Since 1965, African Americans went from holding fewer than 1,000 elected offices nationwide to more than 10,000; Latinos from a small number of offices to more than 6,000; and Asian Americans from under a hundred documented cases to almost 1,000, according to the Joint Center. However, the percentage of minorities in Congress, state legislatures and city councils still lags below the percentage of minority voting-age representation in the United States.


The Supreme Court threw out the most powerful part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the requirement in the Voting Rights Act that all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting get the federal government's approval before changing the way they hold elections. Chief Justice John Roberts said the law's provision that determines which states are covered is unconstitutional because it relies on 40-year-old data and does not account for racial progress and other changes in U.S. society. Obama has called on Congress to update the law.

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