Voting Rights Act of 1965

Statute permitting the federal government to expand its power and authority in order to increase black voter registration and participation in states where African Americans had been subject to discrimination.

At the turn of the twentieth century, southern states adopted numerous devices designed to disenfranchise African Americans and poor whites. The most common device was the literacy test, which required prospective voters to read, write, and interpret any part of the U.S. Constitution or state constitution. The inclusion of an interpretation requirement meant that registrars could reject literate African Americans by deeming their interpretations incorrect. Other devices included the white primary, which excluded African Americans from voting in the Democratic Party primary, and poll taxes, which excluded many poor people, both black and white.

Because of these devices, only about 3 percent of African Americans were registered to vote in the South in 1940. By 1956 the percentage had increased to 25 percent of the black voting-age population. In contrast, 60 percent of the white voting-age population was registered. Efforts by African Americans to register intensified during the Civil Rights movement, and by November, 1964, approximately 43 percent of voting-age blacks in the South were registered. This registration, however, was uneven. In the Deep South, especially in the rural areas, black registration was significantly lower. For example, the average black registration rate in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina was approximately 22 percent while in Mississippi the figure was less than 7 percent.

Efforts to increase the registration of African Americans in the southern states involved a variety of organizations, including the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The most important campaign occurred in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. In the fall of 1964 only 335 out of more than 15,000 African Americans of voting age were registered in Dallas County, Alabama. In Dallas County, registration was allowed only two days a month. Applicants had to fill in more than fifty blanks on a form, write a part of the Constitution from dictation, read four parts of the Constitution and answer four questions about what they had read, answer four questions on the working of government, and swear loyalty to both the state of Alabama and the United States.Civil Rights movement

Following several months of demonstrations and efforts, civil rights activists held a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. State troopers and sheriff’s posse men attacked marchers when they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and approximately one hundred marchers were injured. National outrage over the attacks led to approval of the Voting Rights Act in August, 1965, by a vote of 328 to 74 in the House of Representatives and by a 79 to 18 vote in the Senate. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law, referring to it as “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.”


Upon the request of President Johnson, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach designed an exceptionally strong act. Its purpose was to enforce section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade states or political subdivisions from applying a voter prerequisite to deny or abridge on account of race or color the right of any citizen of the United States to vote. The previous Civil Rights Acts passed in 1957, 1960, and 1964 contained provisions designed to end voter discrimination; however, their impact was limited because they required a case-by-case approach in seeking remedies. In addition, these acts did not allow the federal government to intervene on behalf of those subject to discrimination.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act included several provisions designed to overcome the shortcomings of the previous acts. First, section 4 of the act included a formula that targeted areas where discrimination was greatest and where federal government intervention in voter registration could be of the most help. The targeted areas were those that required a literacy test or similar test for registration prior to November 1, 1964, and where fewer than 50 percent of the eligible voters were either registered to vote or had actually voted in the 1964 presidential election. This provision affected the entire states of Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia as well as twenty-six counties in North Carolina and one county in Arizona. In these areas, the Voting Rights Act eliminated for five years the use of literacy tests and other such devices as a prerequisite for registration. On August 7, 1965, Attorney General Katzenbach suspended the tests in these places. Later, in 1965 and 1966, additional counties in North Carolina and Arizona as well as one county each in Hawaii and Idaho were also targeted.

Section 5 of the act included a preclearance provision that required state and local governments covered by the triggering formula to submit any proposed changes in voting laws or practices that had not been in force on November 1, 1964, to the Justice Department or the federal district court in Washington, D.C. This was designed to prevent these governments from developing new techniques designed to limit African American participation in voting.

Under provisions in sections 6 and 7 of the act, the attorney general could send federal voter examiners in to gather names of eligible voters and present them to local officials, who were required to register them. Under section 8 of the law, the attorney general could also send observers or poll watchers to oversee elections to ensure that African Americans were permitted to vote and their votes were counted. During the first ten years of the act, examiners were sent to approximately sixty counties in the South, most of which were in Mississippi or Alabama. An estimated 15 percent of the African Americans who registered in this period were registered by these examiners. The federal government also assigned more than 6,500 poll watchers during the same period.

Section 3 gave the courts the authority to send federal registrars and poll watchers to locales outside covered jurisdictions if the attorney general or private parties brought suits. Section 10 instructed the attorney general to challenge the constitutionality of the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting in state and local elections. Section 11 prohibited anyone “acting under color of law” from preventing qualified voters from voting or intimidating, threatening, or coercing voters; it also prohibited voting fraud in federal elections. Section 12 stipulated punishment for violation of someone’s voting rights. Finally, section 14 provided a detailed definition of voting.


South Carolina sued to test the legality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach[case]South Carolina v. Katzenbach[South Carolina v. Katzenbach] (1966), the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the major provisions of the law. In its decision, the Court recognized that the act represented an uncommon extension of federal power; however, it justified these powers by noting that exceptional conditions could justify legislative measures that might otherwise be deemed inappropriate.

Other court cases followed concerning provisions of the act. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections[case]Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections[Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections] (1966), the Court declared the poll tax for state and local elections unconstitutional. This overturned the court’s 1937 decision in Breedlove v. Suttles[case]Breedlove v. Suttles[Breedlove v. Suttles], which stated that a poll tax did not violate the Constitution.

Although African American registration increased significantly, some southern locales used a variety of more subtle techniques to limit the impact of black voters. These included withholding information from black voters, failing to provide assistance to illiterate voters, purging voting rolls, disqualifying voters on technical grounds, requiring separate registration for different types of elections, moving polling places, and failing to provide adequate voting facilities in black precincts. Efforts were also made to dilute the impact of African American voters, which resulted in more court cases.

In Allen v. Board of Elections[case]Allen v. Board of Elections[Allen v. Board of Elections] (1969), the Court examined the issue of dilution of black voters in Mississippi when the state moved from single-member districts to at-largeAt-large elections[At large elections]African Americans;at-large elections[at-large elections] elections. The Court held that the Voting Rights Act gave a broad interpretation to the right to vote and stated that voting included all actions necessary to make a vote effective. This greatly increased the importance of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and resulted in many more challenges to proposed changes in election procedures in covered jurisdictions. For example, between 1965 and 1969 the Justice Department objected to only six proposed changes. By the end of 1989, 2,335 changes had been objected to under section 5.

In White v. Regester[case]White v. Regester[White v. Regester] (1973), the Court unanimously agreed that multimember districts in the Texas counties of Bexar and Dallas were unconstitutional based on the totality of the circumstances, which included the cultural and economic realities of African Americans and Mexicans as well as the multimember districts. In general, this decision resulted in multimember districts being replaced by single-member districts.

In 1980, however, in Mobile v. Bolden[case]Mobile v. Bolden[Mobile v. Bolden], the Court held that the Fifteenth AmendmentFifteenth Amendment applied only to access to the ballot, not vote dilution, and that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments required a showing of purpose to discriminate. This decision was a setback for voting rights. However, in 1986 the Court gave explicit guidelines for dilution in Thornburg v. Gingles[case]Thornburg v. Gingles[Thornburg v. Gingles]. In this North Carolina case, the Court provided a three-part test for determining if multimember districts resulted in dilution: The minority group had to be sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in at least one single-member district; the minority group had to tend to vote as a bloc; and the majority group had to vote sufficiently as a bloc to enable it to normally defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.

Overall, despite manipulation and court challenges, the Voting Rights Act had a significant impact on the South. Within one month of its passage, more than 27,000 new African American voters were registered by federal examiners in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi alone. By 1968 black registration in the South increased from 2 million to 3.3 million. In the seven states originally covered by the act, African American registration increased from 29.3 percent in March, 1965, to 56.6 percent by 1972. By 1988 black registration in the eleven states of the South stood at 63.7 percent; in the five Deep South states, it was 65.2 percent.

Increased registration made African Americans important actors in the political process in many parts of the South and resulted in a significant rise in the number of black elected officials. In 1968 there were only 248 black elected officials in the South, but this number rose to 2,601 in 1982 and to 4,924 in 1993.

The Voting Rights Act was renewed in 1970, 1975, and 1982. Each time it was expanded, and it is now applicable to the entire United States. Some of the major additions to the act included extending the franchise to eighteen-year-olds, adding bilingual provisions that required voting information and ballots to be printed not only in English but also in other languages appropriate for local citizens, and creating a provision for minority access and influence districts. Therefore, the Voting Rights Act not only increased the federal government’s role in voting but also resulted in significant increases in participation in the political process.

Further Reading

  • Davidson, Chandler, ed. Minority Vote Dilution. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1984.
  • Elliott, Ward E. The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court’s Role in Voting Rights Disputes, 1845-1969. Cambridge, Mass.: Howard University Press, 1974.
  • Garrow, David J. Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.
  • Grofman, Bernard, and Chandler Davidson, eds. Controversies in Minority Voting: The Voting Rights Act in Perspective. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1992.

Civil Rights movement

Fifteenth Amendment

Grandfather clause

Mobile v. Bolden

Poll taxes

South Carolina v. Katzenbach

Vote, right to

Warren, Earl

White primaries