On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The law applied a nationwide prohibition against the denial or abridgment of the right to vote. The act contained special enforcement provisions targeted at those areas of the country where Congress believed the potential for discrimination to be the greatest. Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, millions of African Americans had been denied the right to vote simply because of the color of their skin. Following the act, local and state jurisdictions were prohibited from using discriminatory practices, including “literacy” examinations, poll taxes, violence, and other methods of intimidation aimed at keeping black Americans from the polls. Not only did such tactics make voting difficult, it also made it very difficult for blacks to be elected to Congress.
The Voting Rights Act was a significant catalyst for the increase in black congressional representation during the second half of the twentieth century. Considered one of the most important victories of the civil rights struggle, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 significantly increased access to the polls for blacks, particularly in the South. Other factors—including black migration to northern cities, white relocation to the suburbs, and redistricting—also contributed to the increase in black congressional representation following the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Black participation in electoral politics resulted in a steady increase in the number of black Congress members, and the number continues to rise. In 1965, there were only six black members of the House and no black members of the Senate. A few years later, when the CBC was established in 1971, there were 13 members of the House and one black member of the Senate. The 109th Congress (2005-2007) has 42 black members of the House and one black member of the Senate.
The issue of voting rights and the battle against disenfranchisement of citizens based on racial factors remains at the forefront of the work of the CBC. Since 1965, the Voting Rights Act has been amended several times. House members continue to introduce and support policy that ensures that all Americans have fair and equal opportunity to participate in the election process.
The initial amendments to the Voting Rights Act were added in the 1970s. In 1970 and 1975, Congress extended Section 5 of the original Voting Rights Act. The purpose of Section 5 is to prevent voting rights violations before they occur. Section 5 focuses on the use of discriminatory tests or other devices designed to exclude certain individuals from the voting process. These extensions require that jurisdictions with a history of illegal discrimination obtain permission from either the Justice Department or a panel of federal district court judges before changing any voting practices. In 1975, these special provisions of the Voting Rights Act were extended for another seven years and were broadened to address voting discrimination against members of “language minority groups.” In addition, the 1965 definition of “test or device” was expanded to include the practice of providing election information, including ballots, only in English in states or political subdivisions where members of a single language minority constituted more than five percent of the citizens of voting age. In 1982, Congress extended Section 5 for twenty-five years.
While the right to vote is permanent, some key sections of the Voting Rights Act are temporary. Without reauthorization, these provisions would expire. In 2006, the provisions were renewed. These provisions include Section 5, Section 203, and Sections 6-9. Section 203 requires that states and municipalities provide assistance and language other than English for voters who are not literate or fluent in English. Sections 6-9 allow the United States Justice Department to send federal examiners to observe places that have histories of discriminatory voting practices.
During the 1980s, Representative John Conyers of Michigan introduced bills to protect voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution by eliminating certain barriers to participation in federal elections and inappropriate registration procedures. Other key legislation introduced by CBC members included a bill by Representative Alan Wheat of Missouri that prohibited the requirement that a majority, rather than a plurality, of votes cast in a primary election for federal office be obtained in order to achieve nomination.
In 1992, the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act was passed. Representative Wheat and other members of the CBC supported this act by co-sponsoring a resolution providing for the consideration of the bill to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with respect to bilingual election requirements. This act’s provisions require bilingual voting materials, and it expands coverage to counties with more than 10,000 voting-age minority citizens who are not proficient in English. This provision provided an alternative coverage standard for Indians and Alaska Natives.
In the 1990s, the CBC members demonstrated their concern about the voting rights of disenfranchised populations such as the homeless and the incarcerated. In 1992, Representative John A. Lewis of Georgia introduced H.R. 1457, a bill to protect the voting rights of homeless citizens. In 1994, Representative Conyers introduced H.R. 4093, a bill to secure the voting rights of former felons who have been released from incarceration.
In 2002, Congress passed the Help America to Vote Act aimed at improving the administration of federal elections by providing assistance with the administration of certain federal election laws and programs. Since the passage of this legislation, several CBC members have introduced amendments designed to further improve the administration of federal elections in local and state jurisdictions.
In recent years, CBC members have rallied to protect the Voting Rights Act. President George W. Bush met with the Congressional Black Caucus in 2005 to discuss the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Extensions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act are set to expire in August 2007. Obstacles such as literacy tests that were set up by segregationists to keep blacks from registering to vote and provisions of the Voting Rights Act, such as the use of federal examiners and a requirement for Justice Department approval of election law changes, are up for renewal by Congress.
In May 2006, CBC members co-sponsored the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006. Despite support from Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and President Bush, the bill was stalled in the House of Representatives. The first opposition was registered by Iowa Republican Steve King, who cast the only dissenting vote in the Judiciary Committee. Rep. King’s complaint related to the requirement to print ballots in Spanish in certain precincts that are heavily populated with Hispanics. Opposition from other Republicans, especially some representatives from Georgia and Texas, related to the law’s special requirements for certain states and districts that are mostly in the South.
Rep. John Lewis was one of the most vocal proponents of the bill. In reaction to the opposition, he stated, “The evidence shows that voting discrimination in America is not dead, and the Voting Rights Act must retain its original power in order to assure that democracy prevails…in America. If we as a nation and a people are truly committed to the full participation of every American in the democratic process, then there should be no serious impediment to the passage of H.R. 9.” Despite the opposition, this bill was ultimately passed in the House and Senate and signed into law by President Bush in 2006.