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How the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Works

The Voting Rights Act gave the Federal Government power to ensure that voting laws are not discriminatory. Some Voting Rights Act provisions apply nationwide, and some provisions focus on states and local governments that have a past record of voting discrimination.

Below are explanations of the parts of this law that have the most effect on voters and state agencies responsible for making sure elections are fair.

Section 2

Section 2 of the law applies nationwide. It forbids any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgement” of any citizen’s right to vote because of race or color. Section 2 allows challenges to specific election laws, either before or after those laws take effect in any state or local jurisdiction.

The U.S. Attorney General or an individual may sue a state or local government in order to show that a voting law or practice results in racial discrimination.

Sections 4 and 5

Sections 4 and 5 address states and local governments guilty of past voting discrimination. Sections 4 and 5 expire if not renewed. Sections 4 and 5 were reauthorized and some protections expanded in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006.

Section 4(b)

Section 4(b) describes which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5, and must get approval or “preclearance” for their election laws. A jurisdiction must get preclearance if it had less than 50% turnout in the presidential elections of 1964, 1968 or 1972 and it used a discriminatory test or device for voter registration (such as a literacy test or poll tax) in those years.

The following jurisdictions fell under section 4(b) and had to get their election laws reviewed and precleared by the Attorney General:

  • States: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia
  • Some Counties in: California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota
  • Some Townships in: Michigan

Section 5

Section 5 requires that all states, cities, townships and counties with a history of voting discrimination as defined in section 4b must get permission in advance from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court before making any change –even a small one – to their election and voting laws or procedures.

This advance permission is called “preclearance.” The U.S. Attorney General has 60 days to object to a proposed change on the grounds that it has a discriminatory purpose or effect. If the Attorney General objects, the law may not take effect. A lawsuit can be brought in federal court instead, but that takes longer and costs more than seeking permission from the Attorney General.

Preclearance solved the past problem of lengthy lawsuits and court orders that failed to stop voting discrimination. Using preclearance, the Attorney General reviewed all laws from the covered states before those laws went into effect.

Sections 6, 7 and 8

Sections 6 and 7 of the Voting Rights Act authorized the Attorney General to send federal examiners to southern states to register voters, and Section 8 provided for poll watchers to supervise elections. They replaced local officials who were making it difficult or impossible for Blacks to register or vote.

The Voting Rights Act also established ways that states and local governments covered by preclearance requirements could have those requirements removed by demonstrating that they followed the law for a certain number of years.  This is called “bail out.”