What the Voting Rights Act Does—and Doesn’t—Do

Even by the standards of today’s bitterly divided and partisan Washington, President Biden’s speech in support of the proposed John Lewis Voting Rights Act, or more accurately his lambasting of Republicans as modern-day Bull Connors, George Wallaces, and Jefferson Davises for opposing it, has become a flashpoint. After all, the president proclaimed, the Voting Rights Act was “extended” in 2006, and a good number of Republicans in today’s Senate were part of the unanimous vote for it back then. Doesn’t this show that the Republicans have abandoned a previous bipartisan consensus on voting rights?

Well, no. Mitt Romney is not George Wallace. But a bit of history and explanation is in order to explain what the Voting Rights Act does and doesn’t do and why merely inserting the words “voting rights” and “John Lewis” into the title of a bill does not make opposing it a moral failing.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was an important, perhaps the most important, law passed during the civil rights era. Virtually no one disputes this, because we are all familiar with the history of the efforts, particularly but not exclusively in the South, to keep blacks from exercising their right to vote that precipitated the law’s passage. These efforts began shortly after the passage of the Civil War era amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) and historically took many forms. Black voters were subject to violence and intimidation. States and localities implemented voter registration requirements that were nominally “race neutral” but would in practice apply only to blacks or former slaves. These included literacy tests or other tests of picayune knowledge, with a convenient—for whites—exemption for people whose grandfathers could vote before the Civil War (the origin of the term “grandfather clause,” by the way), and other creative practices designed to suppress black voter registration. 

The pre-Voting Rights Act state of affairs was thus a true example of “voter suppression” in a way that would be unimaginable today. Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, only 23 percent of voting age blacks in America were registered to vote. By 1969, 61 percent were, making the Voting Rights Act probably the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever. 

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