When the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress in 1965, it was intended to outlaw poll taxes, literacy tests and other attempts by state governments to discourage minorities from voting. Over the past five decades, the law has been almost universally praised as an essential tool to not only ensure fair elections, but also to thwart the marginalization of minorities in America. In recent years, however, the law has come under attack as various state legislatures have chipped away at key provisions. “In theory, everybody’s in favor of the right to vote,” President Obama said recently. “But in practice, we have state legislatures that are deliberately trying to make it harder for people to vote.”
The president is calling on Congress to approve an updated version of the law that would neutralize some of these state efforts. Republicans, for the most part, are not receptive. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argues that a strengthened law is unnecessary. “America’s come a long way,” he says, “and the Voting Rights Act is intact.”
In fact, the law was gutted in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court wiped out a crucial provision that required states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain advance federal approval before changing their election laws. That element of the law recognized that some states have a well documented history of racial discrimination, and it enabled the federal government to effectively pre-empt any further attempts at limiting the voting rights of minorities.