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An Act Diminished? The 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Once a representation of equality, it is now a source of division

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    Half a Century

    En español l The Voting Rights Act, signed into law at the height of the civil rights movement, prohibits racial discrimination in voting. At its 50th anniversary, the landmark law has lost some bite.

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    Ratified by the states in 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans voter restriction on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but before long states in the South pass new constitutions and laws incorporating literacy tests, poll taxes, property ownership requirements, moral character tests and other restrictions that keep black citizens from voting.

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    Much to Accomplish

    Along with the goals of ending job discrimination and desegregating public accommodations, the push to restore voting rights undermined in many states drives the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.

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    Not Enough

    The Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t end violence against African Americans trying to vote in the South. After state troopers attack peaceful marchers in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson calls for a strong voting rights law; congressional hearings begin.

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    A Law at Last

    Signed by Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, the groundbreaking law prohibits racial discrimination in voting. The heart of the law, Section 5, blocks nine states, mostly in the South, plus various other jurisdictions with histories of discrimination from changing voting procedures that could affect minorities without prior approval from the U.S. attorney general or a federal court.

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    Instant Results

    By the end of 1965, 250,000 new black voters register.

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    Getting It Done

    The U.S. Department of Justice describes the Voting Rights Act as “generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress.” Since 2010 alone, the department has had 18 Section 5 objections to voting laws in Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana.

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    The Supreme Court strikes down a key section of the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

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    Voter ID Laws

    Much of today’s debate on voting rights centers on new voter identification laws. Thirty-two states now have some form of voter ID law, which critics say complicates voting for the poor, minorities and older voters.

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    Looking Forward

    A number of bills introduced in Congress, the first seven months after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling and the most recent this 50th-anniversary year, would restore the law’s core protection. None has gotten much traction.

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