5 Terrible Acts of Voter Discrimination the Voting Rights Act Prevented—But Won't Anymore

| Tue Aug. 6, 2013 5:20 PM EDT
President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law 48 years ago today. But in June, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court struck down a major section of the law, freeing jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to change their voting laws without federal permission. For decades, Section 5 of the VRA required a number of jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to seek the feds' approval—called preclearance, in legal parlance—before modifying voting rules. The Supreme Court's decision gutted Section 5, paving the way for new discriminatory laws.

Since the high court ruling, North Carolina has passed what critics have called the worst voter ID law in the country, Texas pushed ahead with a voter ID law and redistricting plan that the VRA blocked last year, and Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to continue to challenge discriminatory voting laws despite the Supreme Court ruling. Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, announced this week that he would renew his efforts to purge "noncitizens" from the voter rolls, a messy, inaccurate practice that the Justice Department says violates the VRA and unfairly targets black and Latino voters.

In honor of the VRA's anniversary, here are five recent and egregious examples of minority discrimination that were blocked by Section 5, the part of the law the Supreme Court eviscerated in June:

  • In 2001, the all-white board of aldermen in the town of Kilmichael, Mississippi (pop. 830), canceled town elections after an unprecedented number of black candidates made it onto the ballot. When the Department of Justice (DOJ) forced an election and the town finally voted, it elected its first black mayor and three black aldermen.
  • During a 2004 city council primary in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a Vietnamese American candidate, Phuong Tan Huynh, ran against white incumbent Jackie Ladnier. Ladnier and his supporters challenged about 50 Asian American voters at the polls. Their reason? If they couldn't speak English well, they might not be citizens. The DOJ intervened, and Huynh became the first Asian American on the city council.
  • Texas is perfect example of the continued need for the VRA. The state has been repeatedly blocked from implementing both local and statewide changes that blatantly disenfranchise minority voters, from redistricting schemes to the elimination of polling places and early voting in minority districts. A report from Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund found that the between 1982 and 2006 Texas was second only to Mississippi in the number of DOJ objections under Section 5. One example: In 2007, officials in Waller County, home to the historically black Prairie View A&M University, enacted strict voter registration rules (without federal approval) that allowed them to reject voter registration applications, mostly from PVAMU students, for minor errors or omissions. After the Justice Department sued the county, a local judge told the Houston Chronicle that registrars "were maybe being a little picky with some of the things they were rejecting for."
  • In 2008, Alaska submitted for federal preclearance a plan that would have required some Native Alaskan voters to travel by air or boat to cast a ballot. The state withdrew its submission after it was challenged by the DOJ.
  • After the 2010 Census indicated that blacks had become the majority of the voting-age population in Georgia's Augusta-Richmond, a consolidated city and county, the state Legislature passed a bill that rescheduled voting from November, which had a traditionally high black voter turnout, to July, which had a low turnout overall, but especially for blacks. The change only affected Augusta-Richmond, and, not surprisingly, was rejected under Section 5.
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