In the beginning, states set their own voter qualifications. Then our Civil War produced three constitutional amendments limiting this discretion.
The 13th Amendment (1865) prohibited slavery, the 14th (1868) granted citizenship to anyone “born or naturalized” in the United States and granted “due process” and “equal protection” to all. And the 15th (1870) affirmed the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
Women weren’t given national approval to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Unfortunately, the amendments pertaining to race didn’t solve the problem of voter exclusion. Instead, it started what is now a 150-year pursuit and counting. Here’s more.
In the 1870s, Congress passed the Enforcement Acts, criminalizing obstructing voting and providing federal supervision of elections and voter registration. But enforcement was erratic, and Congress repealed most provisions by 1894.
Election fraud and violence suppressed the African American vote in the South from 1868 to 1888, then Southern states legalized disenfranchisement through Jim Crow laws (1888 to 1908). These included literacy tests, poll taxes, property-ownership requirements and moral character tests.
But there also was the “grandfather” clause. If you fail the tests you could still vote if your grandfather voted. Obviously, all whites had grandfathers who voted, so only minorities were tested. And our Supreme Court supported that.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that there were serious attempts to change. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, supported by the Eisenhower administration, was the first civil rights act since Reconstruction. It was followed by the 1960 act.
Still, enforcement was slow and difficult. That’s not to overlook that local registration records would be missing, or minority registered voters would disappear from voter rolls. Local officials even resigned to thwart minority registration.
Meanwhile, Congress responded to discrimination with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that didn’t prohibit voter exclusion.
After the 1964 Democrat landslide, President Lyndon Johnson drafted a voting bill, but advisers warned that pursuing it so soon after the Civil Rights Act would endanger his Great Society reforms. He hit pause.
But that didn’t stop everyone.
In January 1965, peaceful demonstrators in Selma were violently attacked by police and counterprotesters. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were arrested, inspiring similar marches, with hundreds more arrested.
On Feb. 18, in Marion, Alabama, state troopers violently broke up a voting-rights march during which an unarmed protestor was killed by police while protecting his mother. Spurred by this, the Southern Christian Leadership Council and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began the first of the Selma-to-Montgomery (state capitol) marches.
On the first march, demonstrators were stopped and beaten by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, near Selma, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” A second march, on March 9, resulted in one white Unitarian minister dying and three other ministers being clubbed by four Ku Klux Klan members.
On March 15, President Johnson called for enactment of his bill that became known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Two days later, civil rights leaders, under the protection of federal troops, led 25,000 from Selma to Montgomery.
Although Democrats held two-thirds of both chambers, Johnson worried that Southern Democrats would filibuster and asked Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., for Republican support, which Dirksen gave after learning about police violence in Selma.
The bill required that certain state and local governmental practices be eliminated. A “coverage formula” defined which jurisdictions were subject to these special provisions, including obtaining “preclearance” to change voting procedures, to assure they were not discriminatory.
It also required suspension of “tests or devices,” such as poll taxes, and provided for federal oversight of voter registration and elections.
The bill passed by 328-74 in the House (Democrats 217-54, Republicans 111-20) and 79-18 in the Senate (Democrats 49-17, Republicans 30-1).
Congress enacted major amendments and reauthorized the special provisions several times beyond the five years and expanded the coverage formula in 1972.
In 2013, however, the Supreme Court held, in Shelby County v. Holder, that the coverage formula, then 42 years old, was unconstitutional because its underlying statistics were outdated.
Now, in 2021, we’re still arguing over an issue resolved in 1965, actively resisted by some. We’ll see what happens this year.