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Facts about African American Voting Rights

 

United States Department of Justice

Voting Rights Act Clarification

The Department of Justice has received numerous inquiries concerning a rumor that has been intermittently circulating around the nation for many months. According to this rumor, the Voting Rights Act will expire in 2007, and as a result African Americans are in danger of losing the right to vote in that year.

The rumor is false. The voting rights of African Americans are guaranteed by the United
States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, and those guarantees are permanent and do not expire.

Here is a summary of relevant provisions of the Voting Rights Act:

The 15th amendment to the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibit
racial discrimination in voting. Under the 15th amendment and the Voting Rights Act
no one may be denied the right to vote because of his or her race or color.

These prohibitions against racial discrimination in voting are permanent; they do not
expire.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted at a time when for decades in some
areas of the South blacks had not been permitted to vote, and blacks who attempted
to register to vote or to organize or assist others to attempt to register to vote risked
losing their jobs, their homes, even their lives.

To combat this situation Congress included in the Voting Rights Act -- in addition to
permanent provisions banning racial discrimination -- special provisions containing
extraordinary remedies that applied in certain areas of the nation for a limited time
period.

Among these extraordinary remedies are--

the authorization of the U.S. Attorney General to send federal registrars
(examiners) to register voters, in counties where the local registrar
refuses to register blacks. [Section 6, 42 U.S.C. 1973d]

the authorization of the U.S. Attorney General to send federal observers
to monitor elections, to make sure that blacks who are eligible to vote are
actually permitted to vote, and that their votes are actually counted.
[Section 8, 42 U.S.C. 1973f]

the requirement that specially covered jurisdictions gain the approval of
the U.S. Attorney General before implementing new voting practices or
procedures, to make sure that any voting changes that they make are not
racially discriminatory. [Section 5, 42 U.S.C. 1973c]

These special provisions containing extraordinary remedies were intended to be of
limited duration. They were originally scheduled to expire in 1970, but they were
extended in 1970, and again in 1975 and 1982. They are now scheduled to expire in
2007, if not further extended.

Even if the special provisions are allowed to expire, they can be reinstated by court
order if there is a renewal of discriminatory practices.

The basic prohibition against discrimination in voting contained in the 15th
amendment and in the Voting Rights Act does not expire in 2007 -- it does not expire
at all; it is permanent.



U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
Voting Section

Frequently Asked Questions

What federal law protects me from discrimination in voting?
Where did the Voting Rights Act come from?
What does the Voting Rights Act do?
What kinds of racial discrimination in voting are there, and what does the Voting Rights Act do about them?
Is it prohibited to draw majority-minority districts?
What does the Justice Department do to enforce the Voting Rights Act?
What is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act?
What is the Justice Department's role under Section 5? 
I work for a covered jurisdiction and have the duty to make our Section 5 submissions. What do I need to do to
comply with the law?
Can individuals have their views considered in the Section 5 review process? 
What is a federal complaints examiner?
How can I give a complaint of voting discrimination to a federal examiner?
Does the Voting Rights Act protect language minorities?
What are federal observers?
How do I get federal observers to monitor an election?
Will the Voting Rights Act expire?
What other voting rights laws does the Justice Department enforce?
What responsibilities does the Justice Department have with regard to voter fraud or intimidation? 
What responsibilities does the Justice Department have with regard to campaign finance?
Can the Justice Department run elections to make sure they are fair?
How can I make a discrimination complaint under the Voting Rights Act?

What federal law protects me from discrimination in voting?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects every American against racial discrimination in voting. This law also protects the voting rights of many people who have limited English skills. It stands for the principle that everyone's vote is equal, and that neither race nor language should shut any of us out of the political process. You can find the Voting Rights Act in the United States Code at 42 U.S.C. 1973 to 1973aa-6. 

Where did the Voting Rights Act come from?

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement in the South, a movement committed to securing equal voting rights for African Americans. The action came immediately after one of the most important events of that movement, a clash between black civil rights marchers and white police
in Selma, Alabama. The marchers were starting a 50-mile walk to the state capital, Montgomery, to demand equal rights in voting, when police used violence to disperse them. What happened that day in Selma shocked the nation, and led President Johnson to call for immediate passage of a strong federal voting rights law. 

What does the Voting Rights Act do?

The Voting Rights Act bans all kinds of racial discrimination in voting. For years, many states had laws on their books that served only to prevent minority citizens from voting. Some of these laws required people to take a reading test or interpret some passage out of the Constitution in order to vote, or required people registering to vote to bring someone already registered who would vouch for their "good character." The Voting Rights Act made these and other discriminatory practices illegal, and gave private citizens the right to sue in federal court to stop them. In recent times, courts have applied the Act to end race discrimination in the method of electing state and local legislative bodies and in the choosing of poll officials. 

What kinds of racial discrimination in voting are there, and what does the Voting Rights Act do about them?

The Voting Rights Act is not limited to discrimination that literally excludes minority voters from the polls. Section 2 of the Act (42 U.S.C. 1973) makes it illegal for any state or local government to use election processes that are not equally open to minority voters, or that give minority voters less opportunity than other voters to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice to public office. In particular, Section 2 makes it illegal for state and local governments to "dilute" the votes of racial minority groups, that is, to have an election system that makes minority voters' votes less effective than those of other voters. One of many forms of minority vote dilution is the drawing of district lines that divide minority communities and keep them from putting enough votes together to elect representatives of their choice to public office. Depending on the circumstances, dilution can also result from at-large voting for governmental bodies. When coupled with a long-standing pattern of racial discrimination in the community, these and other election schemes can deny minority voters a fair chance to elect their preferred candidates. 

To show vote dilution in these situations, there must be a geographically concentrated minority population and voting that is polarized by race, that is, a pattern in which minority voters and white voters tend to vote differently as groups. It must also be shown that white voters, by voting as a bloc against minority-choice candidates, usually beat those candidates even if minority voters are unified or cohesive at the polls. 

Anyone aggrieved by minority vote dilution can bring a federal lawsuit to stop it. If the court decides that the effect of an election system, in combination with all the local circumstances, is to make minority votes less effective than white votes, it can order a change in the election system. For example, courts have ordered states and localities to adopt districting plans to replace at-large voting, or to redraw their election district lines in a way that gives minority voters the same opportunity as other voters to elect representatives of their choice. 

Is it prohibited to draw majority-minority districts?

No. Over 30 years ago the Supreme Court held that jurisdictions are free to draw majority-minority election districts that follow traditional, non-racial districting considerations, such as geographic compactness and keeping communities of interest together. Later Supreme Court decisions have held that drawing majority-minority districts may be required to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

While it remains legally permissible for jurisdictions to take race into account when drawing election districts, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution requires a strong justification if racial considerations predominate over traditional districting principles. One such justification may be the need to remedy a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. While such a remedy may include election district boundaries that compromise traditional districting principles, such districts must be drawn where the Section 2 violation occurs and must not compromise traditional principles more than is necessary to remedy the violation.

What does the Justice Department do to enforce the Voting Rights Act? 

Under Section 2 of the Act the Department may sue in federal court to challenge those practices that it has determined are racially discriminatory. Several lawsuits of this nature are filed every year. The Attorney General also has special administrative powers, under a part of the Act known as Section 5, to prevent the adoption of
discriminatory voting practices in certain parts of the country. The Department also works with states and localities to help them understand the Voting Rights Act and avoid discrimination in voting, and may send federal observers to monitor elections to ensure their fairness to minorities when such monitoring is deemed necessary. 

What is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act?

Section 5 is a special provision of the statute (42 U.S.C. 1973c) that requires state and local governments in certain parts of the country to get federal approval (known as"preclearance") before implementing any changes they want to make in their voting procedures: anything from moving a polling place to changing district lines in the county. 

Under Section 5, a covered state, county or local government entity must demonstrate to federal authorities that the voting change in question (1) does not have a racially discriminatory purpose; and (2) will not make minority voters worse off than they were prior to the change (i.e. the change will not be "retrogressive"). 

Section 5 applies to all or parts of the following states:

Alabama
Alaska
Arizona
California
Florida
Georgia
Louisiana
Michigan
Mississippi
New Hampshire
New York
North Carolina
South Carolina
South Dakota
Texas 
Virginia

The detailed list of "covered jurisdictions" is printed in the Code of Federal Regulations at the end of 28 C.F.R. Part 51. These are the Justice Department's Section 5 guidelines, which explain how the Section 5 review process works and help jurisdictions with terminology, deadlines and many other matters. 

What is the Justice Department's role under Section 5? 

Under Section 5, covered jurisdictions cannot enforce voting changes unless and until they obtain approval ("preclearance") either from the federal district court in Washington, D.C. or from the Attorney General. If the jurisdiction chooses to obtain preclearance from the Attorney General, she has 60 days after receiving all the
necessary information to decide whether a governmental entity has shown that a proposed voting change is not discriminatory in purpose or effect. 

The Justice Department investigates submissions carefully by studying documents, interviewing people in the affected community, and getting to know the facts. If the Attorney General decides that a proposed change was designed to discriminate against minority voters, or that, regardless of intent, it makes minority voters worse off
than before, she will "object" to the change in a letter to the jurisdiction. If that happens, the change is legally unenforceable and cannot be put into effect, just as if the federal court had issued a ruling against the proposed change. If the jurisdiction disagrees with the Attorney General's objection, it can still take the matter to the federal court in Washington, D.C., where it will have to prove that its proposed change is not discriminatory either in purpose or in effect. If the Attorney General does not object, the change can be implemented. However, the Justice Department or a private party can still go to court under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and challenge the change as a racially discriminatory voting procedure. 

I work for a covered jurisdiction and have the duty to make our Section 5 submissions. What do I need to do to comply with the law? 

To learn what the Voting Rights Act requires of your jurisdiction, the best place to start is the Justice Department's Section 5 guidelines, 28 C.F.R. 51.01 to 51.67. The guidelines explain what should be in a submission, who should make the submission and when it should be made, how long the Department's review will take, what happens if the Attorney General objects to a change, and many other details you will want to
know. You can find the guidelines in any copy of the Code of Federal Regulations, or you can request a copy of the guidelines from the Voting Section at the toll-free number. 

Can individuals have their views considered in the Section 5 review process? 

Yes. Anyone can write to the Attorney General or call the Voting Section with a comment for or against preclearance while the submission is pending. You don't need a lawyer or any special qualifications. We publish weekly notices showing the voting changes that have been submitted under Section 5. Those notices are posted on this Web site, and also can be requested from the Voting Section at the address listed below. 

What is a federal complaints examiner?

Federal examiners are officials to whom complaints of voting discrimination can be made under certain circumstances. At the time the Voting Rights Act was passed, one of the problems faced by African Americans in the South was that many white county registrars kept them from registering to vote by applying state voter registration rules in a discriminatory way. To address this problem, Section 6 of the Voting Rights Act allows the U.S. Attorney General to "certify" a county (if it was already specially covered under the Act) for the appointment of federal officials, through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), who would "examine" the applicants for voter registration and make a list of those who met state eligibility rules; the list would be given to the local county registrar, who had to put those names on the county's voter registration rolls. Those on the examiner's list are commonly called federally registered voters. The Act also requires the examiners to be available during each of the county's elections, and for two days afterward, to take complaints from any federally registered voters who claimed that they had not been allowed to vote. Besides the power the Attorney General has to see that examiners are appointed, a court can certify a county for federal examiners as relief in a voting rights lawsuit. 

Even though the voter registration problems that made examiners so important have been effectively eliminated because of the Voting Rights Act's ban on literacy tests and other discriminatory practices, counties have been certified in recent years to allow federal observers to monitor polling place procedures. Federal examiners continue their role of taking complaints during and after elections in nearly all of the counties that have been certified for observers under the Act. 

How can I give a complaint of voting discrimination to a federal examiner?

People in certified counties can contact a federal examiner by calling the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's toll-free number: (888) 496-9455. The list of certified counties is set out in volume 45 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 801. Anyone who wants to know if a particular county has been certified can call OPM's toll-free number to find out. 

Does the Voting Rights Act protect language minorities?

Yes. The Voting Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate in voting based on someone's membership in a language minority group. The idea behind the Voting Rights Act's minority language provisions is to remove language as a barrier to political participation, and to prevent voting discrimination against people who speak minority languages. The Justice Department enforces these protections by bringing lawsuits in federal court, by sending federal observers to monitor elections, and by working with local jurisdictions to improve their minority language election procedures. 

Many jurisdictions with people of Hispanic, Native American, and Alaskan Native heritage are covered by Section 5 of the Act, according to the formula found in Section 4(f) of the statute (42 U.S.C. 1973b(f)), and must submit all their voting changes for preclearance just as other covered jurisdictions do. When we review voting
changes from jurisdictions whose Section 5 coverage is for language minority voters, we look for discrimination (either in purpose or in effect) that voters in the language minority group suffer, no matter what their race. 

The Voting Rights Act further protects minority language group members by requiring particular jurisdictions to print ballots and other election materials in the minority language as well as in English, and to have oral translation help available at the polls where the need exists. The formulas for determining which jurisdictions must do this are based on the share of the local population in need, and can be found in Sections 4(f) and 203 of the Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C. 1973b(f) and 1973aa-1a). The Act requires bilingual election procedures in various states and counties for voters who speak Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, and more than a dozen Native American and Alaskan Native languages. 

The list of jurisdictions covered by the Act's minority language requirements is printed in the Code of Federal Regulations at the end of 28 C.F.R. Part 55. These are the Justice Department's minority language guidelines; they set out the Department's interpretations of the law in detail, and explain how jurisdictions can best comply
with it. 

The guidelines start by saying jurisdictions should take "all reasonable steps" to enable language minority voters "to be effectively informed of and participate effectively in voting- connected activities." The guidelines also say that "a jurisdiction is more likely to achieve compliance . . . if it has worked with the cooperation . . . and to the satisfaction of organizations representing members of the applicable language minority group." 

What are federal observers?

Federal observers are authorized by Section 8 of the Voting Rights Act to attend and observe voting and vote-counting procedures during elections. They are non-lawyers, hired and supervised by the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM). They are trained by OPM and by the Justice Department to watch, listen, and take careful notes of everything that happens inside the polling place during an election, and are also trained not to interfere with the election in any way. They prepare reports that may be filed in court, and they can serve as witnesses in court if the need arises. 

How do I get federal observers to monitor an election?

You can contact the Voting Section and explain where the need exists, what needs to be observed, and which minority voters are affected. We consider many such requests each year from organizations and individuals. The Attorney General can send federal observers to any jurisdiction covered by Section 5 or by a court order. 

Will the Voting Rights Act expire? 

No. The Voting Rights Act is a permanent federal law. Moreover, the equal right to vote regardless of race or color is protected by the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has been part of our law since the end of the Civil War. And in case after case, our courts have held that the right to vote is fundamental. Voting
rights will not expire. 

However, some sections of the Voting Rights Act need to be renewed to remain in effect. When Congress amended and strengthened the Voting Rights Act in 1982, it extended for 25 more years--until 2007--the preclearance requirement of Section 5, the authority to use federal examiners and observers, and some of the statute's language minority requirements. So, for those sections to extend past 2007, Congress will have to take action. But even if these special provisions are not renewed, the rest of the Voting Rights Act will continue to prohibit discrimination in voting. 

What other voting rights laws does the Justice Department enforce?

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (often referred to the "motor voter" law) requires states to make voter registration opportunities available when people apply for or receive services at a variety of government agencies, from driver's license offices to social services agencies and public benefits offices. The law says states must not take voters off the rolls merely because they have not voted, and it requires states to keep their voter rolls up to date by removing the names of voters who have died or moved away. It may be found at 42 U.S.C. 1973gg to 1973gg-10. 

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 (42 U.S.C. 1973ff to 1973ff-6) requires states to make sure that members of our armed forces who are stationed away from home, and citizens who are living overseas, can register and vote absentee in federal elections. 

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 (42 U.S.C. 1973ee to 1973ee-6) requires polling places across the United States to be physically accessible to people with disabilities. 

The Justice Department enforces each of these laws by working with state and local governments, advocacy groups, and private citizens, and by bringing lawsuits where necessary, to make sure the protections guaranteed by Congress are extended to all. Also, private citizens may file their own lawsuits under the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act and the National Voter Registration Act. 

What responsibilities does the Justice Department have with regard to voter fraud or intimidation? 

The administration of elections is chiefly a function of state government. However, federal authorities sometimes become involved in election fraud matters when a state prosecutor asks for federal assistance. In addition, the Justice Department can become involved when allegations arise that criminal vote fraud has occurred in a federal election. And, in some exceptional cases, where voting fraud or intimidation involving racial bias occurs in local or state elections, federal criminal charges may also be brought are handled by the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division. 

If you have information about vote fraud, you should contact the nearest office of the FBI or your local U.S. Attorney's office. If you know of vote fraud that was driven by racial animus, you can either contact the Voting Section, or contact the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division: 

Chief, Criminal Section
Civil Rights Division
Department of Justice
P.O. Box 65798
Washington, D.C. 20035-5798

(202) 514-3204 

What responsibilities does the Justice Department have with regard to campaign finance? 

Generally, the Justice Department is not directly involved with campaign finance matters. Federal election campaign finance is the subject of a separate federal statute, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974. FECA matters are handled by the Federal Election Commission, 999 E Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20463. Intentional violations of federal campaign finance laws are federal crimes, and are handled by the FBI. If you have a question about campaign finance in state elections, contact your state elections office. 

Can the Justice Department run elections to make sure they are fair? 

The Justice Department does not administer elections; that is the responsibility of state and local election officials. The Department sometimes sends observers to monitor elections for compliance with federal civil rights laws. If you have a question about election practices, candidate qualifying rules, the location of polling places, or other voting procedures in your jurisdiction, contact your local or state election officials. If you have information about discrimination in voting, please call or write us. 

How can I make a discrimination complaint under the Voting Rights Act?

You can contact us. We encourage anyone with a complaint about voting discrimination to let us know what the problem is, where it is, and how it affects minority voters. There are no special forms to use or procedures to follow--just call us toll-free at (800) 253-3931, or write to us. 

Last Revised - February 11, 2000


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