Following the momentum of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is generally considered the most significant piece of legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 inaugurated an era of unprecedented black participation in the United States political process. The Voting Rights Act not only increased black voter participation—it significantly increased black congressional involvement, as well. For this reason, the Congressional Black Caucus worked tirelessly to protect this key legislation, co-sponsoring bills and amendments since its inception in 1971. CBC members fought to ensure that the voting rights of all Americans, particularly minorities and low income citizens, are protected.
In 1970, the Voting Rights Act was extended for five years. During the hearings Congress heard testimony concerning the ways in which voting electorates were manipulated through gerrymandering, annexations, adoption of at-large elections, and other strategies to prevent black voters from exercising their right to vote. In the years following this amendment, CBC members Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) and Barbara Jordan (D-TX) introduced legislation to protect and extend the coverage of the Voting Rights Act.
In 1975, CBC member Andrew Young (D-GA) introduced H.R.469, a bill to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Its goal was to extend certain provisions for an additional 10 years and to make permanent the ban against certain prerequisites to voting. This legislation was agreed to in the House. Congress extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for seven more years and the 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. During the testimony for this amendment, Congress heard extensive testimony about voting discrimination that had been suffered by Hispanic, Asian and Native American citizens.
In 1981, CBC member Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) introduced a resolution providing for the consideration of the bill (H.R. 3112) to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to extend certain provisions for an additional ten years, to extend certain other provisions for an additional seven years, and for other purposes. The following year, Congress renewed the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act for twenty-five years. During the 1980s, CBC member John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that would prohibit 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.
During the 1990s, the CBC remained committed to protecting the Voting Rights Amendment. In 1992, CBC member Alan Wheat (D-MO) introduced a resolution providing for the consideration of the bill (H.R. 4312) to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with respect to bilingual election requirements. This measure was agreed to in the House. Then in 1993, Congressman William Clay (D-MO) introduced an amendment “to restore federal civilian employees their right to participate voluntarily, as private citizens, in the political processes of the nation, to protect such employees from improper political solicitations, and for other purposes.” It became Public Law No: 103-94.
That same year, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the “Motor Voter” Bill. This legislation made voter registration more uniform and accessible, particularly for minority and low income voters. It required that states allow voter registration by mail. It also required that states give voters the opportunity to register at other state agencies, including driver’s license bureaus, welfare offices and unemployment agencies. In the spirit of this act, Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) 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. This legislation sought to improve the administration of federal elections by providing assistance with the administration of certain federal election laws and programs. Since the passage of this legislation, Congressional Black Caucus members have introduced amendments designed to further improve the administration of federal elections in local and state jurisdictions.
Although African Americans experienced unprecedented social opportunities during the second half of the twentieth century, the significance of the Voting Rights Act remains salient. CBC members recognize that the battle to ensure that the provisions of the Voting Rights Act are protected is far from over. 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 5 requires that select states submit changes in voting laws or procedures to the United States Attorney General for approval. 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.
Most recently, CBC members co-sponsored the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006. The provisions of this legislation were hotly debated by several congressmen from Southern states. These states, including Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama, have extensive histories of racial discrimination and irregular voting practices and oppose federal regulation of voting. In July 2006, the work of the CBC and other voting rights advocates was vindicated when the House and the Senate voted overwhelmingly (390-33) to renew expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act.