Key Provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The most important permanent provisions of the VRA are Section 2, which bans racial discrimination in voting nationwide, and Sections 4 and 201, which ban literacy tests nationwide.

The most important temporary provisions - provisions that get periodically reauthorized by Congress - are:

  • Section 5, which requires certain state and local governments (called "covered jurisdictions") to "preclear" proposed changes in voting or election procedures with either the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and
  • Section 203, which requires that certain state and local jurisdictions provide assistance in languages other than English to voters who are not literate or fluent in English.
  • Sections 6-9, which give the U.S. Attorney General the power to send federal examiners and observers to monitor elections.

Section 5 of the VRA

Preclearance Section 5 provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires a covered jurisdiction to submit any change in election law along with a letter explaining the change to the Department of Justice for review under Section 5 of the Act is defined as those jurisdictions identified under the Act that wanted to change laws and practices affecting voting were required to submit the change along with a letter explaining the change to the Department of Justice.

The jurisdiction must demonstrate that the change does "not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color [or membership in a language minority group]." Citizens may submit comments to the Department of Justice on how the proposed change will affect their community. Within 60 days, the department responds either by approving or "preclearing" the change or by objecting to it.

An objection bars the jurisdiction from implementing the proposed change. If an objection is issued and a jurisdiction wishes to appeal, the jurisdiction may seek preclearance through the D.C. District Court. The jurisdiction may alternatively preclear its changes through a lawsuit in the D.C. District Court.

Jurisdictions Covered by Section 5

A formula designed by Congress in Section 4(b) of the VRA applies Section 5 to any state or county where a “test or device” such as a literacy test was used as of November 1, 1964, and where there was a participation rate of under 50 percent by eligible voters in the 1964 presidential election. Later amendments to the Act incorporated participation in the elections of 1968 and 1972 into the coverage formula.

Prior to a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Section 5 affected all or part of 15 states.

  • Whole State Covered: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia
  • Counties Covered: California (3 counties), Florida (5), New York (3), North Carolina (40) and South Dakota (2)
  • Townships Covered: Michigan (2 townships)

Shelby County v. Holder

The Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized several times by Congress since its initial passage. But on June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in the case Shelby County v. Holder that the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which was used to determine the states and political subdivisions subject to Section 5 preclearance, was unconstitutional.

Thus, while the Court did not invalidate the Section 5 preclearance mechanism in the Voting Rights Act per se, it effectively halted its use by invalidating the formula that determined which jurisdictions were subject to the preclearance obligation, leaving the opportunity for voter suppression tactics to be reintroduced in states that had been previously covered under Section 5 of the VRA.