This year marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the most remarkable and consequential pieces of congressional legislation ever enacted. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ("the VRA") targeted massive disfranchisement of African-American citizens in numerous Southern states. It imposed measures drastic in scope and extraordinary in effect. The VRA eliminated the use of literacy tests and other "devices" that Southern jurisdictions had long employed to prevent black residents from registering and voting. The VRA imposed on these jurisdictions onerous obligations to prove to federal officials that proposed changes to their electoral system would not discriminate against minority voters. Resistance was immediate both in the streets and in the courts, but the VRA withstood the challenge. The result was staggering. The VRA ended the long-entrenched and virtually total exclusion of African Americans from political participation in the South. Black voter registration rose and black participation followed such that, by the early 1970s, courts routinely observed that black voters throughout the South were registering and voting without interference. Similar benefits accrued to non-English speaking voters, particularly to Latino voters in the Southwest, after Congress amended the VRA to protect specified language minorities in 1975. This increased participation exposed less blatant inequalities and problems-complex issues such as racial vote dilution, the contours of which courts are still tackling today. These persistent problems have led Congress to extend and expand the VRA each time its non-permanent provisions were due to expire. The ban on literacy tests, as well as the "preclearance" provisions contained in Section 5, initially were enacted to last for only five years. Nonetheless, Congress decided to extend these provisions in 1970, again in 1975, and for twenty-five more years in 1982. During the last renewal, Congress also expanded the terms of the core permanent provision of the Voting Rights Act - Section 2. Four decades after their original enactment, the non-permanent provisions of the VRA are once again set to expire. Congress must soon determine whether it should renew these provisions, make substantive alterations to them, or simply let them lapse. To make this determination, Congress needs information about the past and present status of minority participation in the political process.
Katz, Ellen D. Documenting Discrimination in Voting: Judicial Findings Under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act Since 1982. M. Aisenbrey et al., co-author. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Law School, 2005.