Where We Stand: Voting Rights

AAUW is committed to open and fair elections, nonpartisan voter education efforts that will promote equitable political participation and representation in appointed and elected office, and the expansion of voting rights.

Our democracy works when everyone can fully participate. Elected officials routinely make decisions about issues that directly impact all of us. From our paychecks to paid leave, access to reproductive health care and access to education, our lives are on the line — and our vote is our voice. To create real change we must be part of the conversation and the most powerful way for us to have our say is at the polls. Yet the right to vote has a long and tumultuous history. Protecting that right — one that many fought long and hard for — continues today as ongoing efforts to suppress the right negates what it means to live in a free democracy.

History

More than a century ago the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right of all men to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of slavery. Fifty years later in 1920, the 19th Amendment gave some women the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1965, after decades of racially discriminatory practices like literacy tests, poll taxes and Jim Crow laws, that the right to vote for everyone — free of racially discriminatory acts — was written into law with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite this landmark legislation, some communities were still unable to equitably access their right to vote. The 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act required that all voting materials be made available in multiple languages and ensured the right to vote for Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

What It Says: The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Broadly speaking, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) made it illegal for any election law or practice to discriminate against or prevent anyone from voting. Two critical provisions — Sections 4 and 5 — gave teeth to the law. Section 4 of the VRA created a “coverage formula” to identify states with a history of unlawful, racially discriminatory election laws and practices that needed more focused remedies. In 1965, states covered under this formula included Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, along with political subdivisions in four additional states. Other localities were added after the 1970 and 1975 amendments broadened the tests for discrimination.

Section 5 of the VRA required the states that were identified by Section 4 to seek out “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before they could enact any changes to their election laws. That is, the states had to prove to the Department of Justice that any proposed changes would not discriminate on the basis of race, sex or language. In 2006, the Fannie Lou Hammer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act of 2006 reaffirmed the country’s commitment to the right to vote and ensured its protection by extending these critical provisions for 25 years.

Challenges to Voting Rights

In 2013, the Shelby County v. Holder decision from the U.S. Supreme Court gutted key protections in the law, making way for many new discriminatory and restrictive voting laws. The Court found that Section 4 was unconstitutional because times had changed and the old formula no longer applied. In finding Section 4 unconstitutional, Section 5 was made inoperable until Congress develops a new coverage formula that, as the Court stated, “speaks to current conditions.”

Why We Need the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019

The immediate result of the Shelby v. Holder ruling could be seen within 24 hours — strict voter ID laws in Texas, Mississippi and Alabama, and curtailment of early voting and elimination of same day registration in North Carolina. All these voter suppression tactics render moot the original intent of the VRA. These voting restrictions disproportionately impact people of color, women, voters with disabilities, and young and older voters, making it more difficult for them to access the ballot box.

To protect these rights, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 (H.R. 4/S. 561) responds to the Shelby v. Holder decision and restores the protections of the VRA. The Voting Rights Advancement Act will:

  • Modernize the VRA’s formula for determining which states and localities have a pattern of discrimination and are subject to preclearance before making changes to voting practices;
  • Increase transparency and ensure that last-minute voting changes do not adversely affect voters by requiring officials to publicly announce all voting changes at least 180 days before an election; and
  • Expand the government’s authority to send federal observers to any jurisdiction where there may be a substantial risk of discrimination at the polls on election day or during an early voting period.

 

Additional Resources

Take Action: Support the Voting Rights Advancement Act
American Association of University Women (AAUW)

H.R. 4 – The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019
The Brennan Center

Support H.R. 4, Voting Rights Advancement Act
Coalition Letter to the House of Representatives