Voting Rights Act of 1965

The meaning of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was to prohibit racial discrimination in voting. For example, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 received five revisions from Congress to ensure that no one could discriminate against voters because of their race.

The Act secured the right to vote for American minorities, enforcing those rights protected by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. To explore this concept, consider the following Voting Rights Act of 1965 definition.

Definition of Voting Rights Act of 1965


  1. A federal law guaranteeing American minorities the right to vote free from racial discrimination.


August 6, 1965

What is the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

The purpose of the Voting Rights Act was to guarantee that minorities in the U.S. could vote without having to worry about racial discrimination. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Act into law during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.

Congress later made five amendments to the Act to expand the protections it could offer to minority Americans. According to the Department of Justice, the Voting Rights Act is the most effective civil rights law the U.S. has ever passed.

History of the Voting Rights Act

The history of the Voting Rights Act dates to the creation of the Constitution itself. Initially, in the early days of the history of the Voting Rights Act, the Constitution left the decision of voter qualifications entirely up to the states.

However, Southern states repeatedly tried to exclude racial minorities from elections by way of fraud and acts of violence. Once the 1950s rolled around, the Civil Rights Movement put pressure on the federal government to strengthen their efforts to protect the minority vote.

In 1957, Congress passed a law allowing the Attorney General to sue on behalf of those who experienced a violation of their Fifteenth Amendment rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 created further protections by allowing federal courts to appoint referees to monitor those jurisdictions known for participating in voter discrimination.

While these laws helped give the courts more power to punish those who violated federal voting rights, they still weren’t enough. That’s why the history of the Voting Rights Act ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, introduced to Congress two days before civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march of 25,000 people from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery, chanting “we shall overcome.”

Drafting the Bill

When it came to drafting the bill, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, a Republican, both worked with Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to get the bill’s language just right. Mansfield and Dirksen received the support of 64 additional Senators who agreed to co-sponsor the bill, with 46 being Democrats and 24 Republicans.

However, the process of drafting the bill did not end here – not by a long shot. As the bill progressed, legislators discovered they needed to make many amendments to the act. For one thing, some legislators believed the bill unfairly targeted jurisdictions in the South. Then, Senator Ted Kennedy led the effort to amend the bill to prevent poll taxes.

After much debate, President Lyndon B. Johnson noticed the Act did not prohibit most forms of discrimination in voting. He then gave further instructions to Attorney General Katzenbach with regard to drafting the bill, telling him to draft the toughest possible voting rights act he could draft. This led to the Act as Americans know it today.

Amendments to the Act

Ultimately there were five amendments to the Act that served to strengthen the protections it offered for American citizens. The first of the amendments to the Act were those which Congress made to Section 5 in 1970 and 1975, allowing the U.S. Supreme Court more of a broad interpretation of the Act.

The most recent of the amendments to the Act occurred in 2006, when Congress eliminated the provision regarding voter examiners. Voting examiners registered voters, monitored elections, and supervised jurisdictions found to have engaged in racial discrimination before. All of these examples of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 amendments turned out to be necessary in that the Act still had a while to go from its inception to the powerhouse it eventually became.

Provisions of the Act

The Voting Rights Act is rather comprehensive, with the provisions of the act being rather numerous. The 1982 Senate Judiciary Committee report outlined some of the more general provisions of the act. Courts rely on these provisions in trying to decide whether a jurisdiction’s election law violates the general ban on prejudiced voting laws. Some of these general provisions of the act include:

  • The degree to which elected officials have failed to respond to the concerns of minority groups;
  • Whether a candidate has obvious or subtle race-related appeals in his or her campaign;
  • The history of discrimination in that jurisdiction which may affect its citizens’ right to vote;
  • The extent to which the jurisdiction’s minorities have suffered discrimination in areas like education, employment, and health.

Literacy Tests

Literacy tests were a cruel method used to force black people out of voting booths. For instance, election officials would often make black people take literacy tests in order to vote. They did this knowing that the black population was largely denied a quality education, and therefore suffered from a high rate of illiteracy. The officials then denied those who failed the literacy tests the opportunity to vote.

Going a step further, voting officials in the Southern states would often force black voters to either recite for them the entire Constitution, or explain the most complicated sections of state laws. Most white voters could not even do this, and naturally, white voters were not required to undergo any type of testing at all.

In some instances, election officials would even deny blacks with college degrees the right to vote because they could not meet this draconian requirement. These are Voting Rights Act of 1965 examples of the kinds of cruel “prerequisites to voting” that the law ultimately quashed.

Effects of the Voting Rights Act

The effects of the Voting Rights Act were immediate. For one thing, by the end of 1965, 250,000 black voters had registered to vote. By the end of the following year – one year later – only 4 of the 13 southern states had less than 50 percent of their black citizens registered to vote.

The effects of the Voting Rights Act are downright impressive. In March of 1965, the gap between white and black voters was at its highest in Mississippi, at 63.2. By November of 1988, that gap had shrunk to a measly 6.3. Even Virginia, the state with the lowest gap between white and black voters, saw significant effects of the Voting Rights Act, with the gap shrinking from 22.8 in March of 1965 to only 4.7 in November of 1988. These are true Voting Rights Act of 1965 examples of the good that particular piece of legislation has done for U.S. citizens.

Voting Rights Act of 1965 Example Involving Parts of the Act Itself

Perhaps the most important example of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is Shelby County v. Holder (2013). This case trumps other Voting Rights Act of 1965 examples because it became a landmark court case concerning the constitutionality of two provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Here, Shelby County, Alabama sued the United States Attorney General, arguing that sections 4(b) and 5 of the Act were unconstitutional. Shelby also sought a permanent injunction against the enforcement of these two provisions. What is important to note is that Section 5 originally had a shelf-life of five years, but legislators had continued to renew it all along.

The district court upheld the provisions, finding that evidence presented to Congress in 2006 was enough to justify the sections as constitutional. Shelby County appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.

U.S. Supreme Court

When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court had to decide whether Congress overstepped its boundaries in renewing Section 5 under the restrictions of section 4(b). Ultimately, the Court decided that yes, it had gone beyond its authority.

The Court held that Section 4 was unconstitutional because it imposed burdens that were otherwise no longer conducive to the climate of the voting districts in question. The Court added that, while Section 4 made more sense in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was no longer relevant in 2013, and for it to continue on as it had been doing was unconstitutional.

Said the Court in its own words:

“Of course in any polity that features majority rule, some people are bound to be outvoted on an issue or a candidate and thus to ‘lose’— on that round of the ongoing political game. Such losses are a necessary function of any system requiring less than unanimity (which would be hopelessly impractical). And in an open society that allows people freely to form associations, and to design those associations, some people obviously will be members of associations whose representatives from time to time express, in their name, opinions they do not share. But that again is a necessary function of having associations free to adopt a structure that empowers their leadership to speak with less than unanimous backing.

But the implied ‘they’ of § 5 is not a polity in itself; nor is it an association freely created by free citizens. Quite the reverse: It is a group constructed artificially by the mandate of Congress, entirely on the lines of race or ethnicity.

On what authority has Congress constructed such groups? Purportedly the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. But that says that 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.’

It is hard to imagine language that could more clearly invoke universal individual rights. It is ‘citizens’ who are protected, and they are protected from any denial of their rights that might be based on the specified group characteristics—race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The members of Congress who launched the amendment, said Senator Willard Warner, ‘profess to give to each individual an equal share of political power.’” (Citation omitted.)

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Fraud – A false representation of fact, whether by words, conduct, or concealment, intended to deceive another.
  • Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
  • Poll Tax – A tax levied on every American adult, without considering a person’s individual income or resources.