The Voting Rights Act (VRA) enforces the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into existence in 1965. Although the original Fifteenth Amendment allowed freed slaves to vote, many Southern states immediately adopted rules and laws to make this difficult. Over the years, Congress has expanded the VRA to include other classes of voters as well.
Voting Is Not a Civil Right
Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does it specifically state that Americans have a civil or constitutional "right" to vote. Through amendments like the Fifteenth, it requires that states and jurisdictions must allow certain classes of people to vote. The VRA is an act, not an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It addresses states' limitations, not individuals' rights. It says that citizens are "entitled and allowed" to vote, and it prohibits jurisdictions from barring them or discouraging them on certain grounds.
The VRA Prevents Discrimination
The VRA specifically addresses any state laws or voting practices that might stop people of certain classes from voting. After Congress added the Fifteenth Amendment, some states enforced voting fees or literacy tests, which prevented many recently freed slaves from voting. The Voting Rights Act doesn't exactly outlaw provisions like literacy tests, but it prevents them from being required on a discriminatory basis and only for some U.S. citizens.
Several Amendments Have Been Added
Congress has added several amendments to the VRA since 1965. In 1975, the government included provisions for citizens who don't speak the English language, or who don't speak it well. In 1982, Congress changed the VRA to accommodate citizens bringing lawsuits against local governments for violations. With these changes, citizens no longer need to prove that the violations were intentional.
The Act Is Somewhat Dependent on State Law
The VRA allows state governments to continue to make their own laws and control most aspects of the voting process. However, an individual who meets a state's across-the-board voting requirements (that apply to all citizens) can't be subjected to any additional requirements based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The VRA carries this language over from the Fifteenth Amendment.
A Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding violations of the Voting Rights Act is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a civil rights lawyer.