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Context of 'February 14, 2002: US Senate Blocks Amendment to VRA Reinstating Right to Vote to Convicted Felons'

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President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. Based on the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869), the VRA is a potent set of statutes that permanently bars direct barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities. It bans any election practice that denies the right to vote due to race, and requires areas with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval of changes in their election laws before they can take effect. The VRA forbids literacy tests (see 1896, April 25, 1898, and June 8, 1959) and other barriers to registration that have worked to stop minority voters from exercising their rights (see 1888, June 21, 1915, and February 4, 1964). Sections 2 and 5 of the VRA work together to prohibit states from establishing voting qualifications or standards that interfere with a citizen’s right to vote on a racial basis. Section 5 requires states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before altering any laws pertaining to voting—this includes changing electoral districts, voter qualification rules, and even changes in government structure such as making a formerly elective office appointive. If the changes can be seen as possibly “diluting” minority voting strength, they can be disallowed. States wishing to challenge the VRA restrictions have the opportunity to have their cases heard in federal court. Section 2 has similar, if less restrictive, provisions that apply nationally. Section 10 of the VRA takes direct aim at the Breedlove ruling from the Supreme Court (see December 6, 1937), which had legitimized poll taxes used to disenfranchise minority voters. That portion of the VRA finds that poll taxes “impose… unreasonable financial hardship” and “precludes persons of limited means from voting.” The VRA also forbids the use of literacy tests, good character tests, and other such tests used in the past to suppress minority voting. The law urges the attorney general to urge the Court to overrule Breedlove; minutes after Johnson signs the bill into law, he directs the attorney general “to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax.” The Court will find poll taxes unconstitutional in its Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections ruling (see March 24, 1966). The US Department of Justice and the federal courts now have the power to monitor problem jurisdictions and assist private citizens in seeking redress through the courts if their voting rights are infringed. Months later, the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of the VRA. [eNotes, 2004; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; Yale Law School, 2/8/2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

1970: Congress Renews Voting Rights Act

Congress renews the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA—see August 6, 1965) for five more years. Unfortunately, the law’s provisions are temporary. Congress also finds that many states are purposefully ignoring some provisions of the law. In the hearings about the law’s extension, Congress heard about the many ways voting electorates were manipulated through gerrymandering, annexations, at-large elections (see April 22, 1980), and other methods to disenfranchise minority voters. [African American Voices in Congress, 2012; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Congress

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

1975: Voting Rights Act Extended

President Gerald Ford reauthorizes the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and 1970). The reauthorization contains new provisions to permanently bar literacy tests nationwide and provide language assistance for minority voters. The law also extends the “preclearance” provisions that require courts to monitor states with a history of discrimination. During hearings about the bill, Congress heard testimony about voting discrimination being carried out against Hispanic, Asian, and Native American citizens. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; African American Voices in Congress, 2012]

Entity Tags: Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Congress, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court guts a significant portion of the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, and 1975) by ruling that voters must prove racially discriminatory intent in order to prevail in litigation under the VRA. In the case of City of Mobile v. Bolden, the Court rules 6-3 that the previous standard of proving discriminatory results is no longer adequate. Disenfranchised voters must now prove intent, a far higher standard, before receiving redress. The case originates in Mobile, Alabama’s practice of electing city commissioners under an at-large voting scheme. No African-American had ever been elected to the commission, and a number of Mobile citizens challenged the constitutionality of the at-large scheme. The Court found that at-large schemes such as that employed by the city of Mobile only violate the Constitution if they deliberately serve to minimize or cancel out the voting potential of minorities. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the plurality, finds that the right to equal participation in the electoral process is aimed not for the protection of any political group. Moreover, he writes that the evidence fails to show that Mobile operates a voting system with the intent to discriminate. The conservative justices largely side with Stewart. The liberals are split. Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens concur with Stewart’s ruling for different reasons than those expressed by Stewart. Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Byron White dissent, with Brennan and White arguing that the burden of proof had been met, and Marshall arguing that the burden of proof should be on Mobile to show that it refused to modify its voting scheme despite the evidence of discrimination. [MOBILE v. BOLDEN, 446 US 55 (1980), 4/22/1980 pdf file; Casebriefs, 2012; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: John Paul Stevens, Byron White, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Potter Stewart, Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress reauthorizes the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, and 1975) for 25 years, until 2014. It also overturns via legislation the Supreme Court’s decision to force voters to prove discriminatory intent before receiving redress (see April 22, 1980). President Reagan signs the bill into law. The reauthorization also adds protections for blind, disabled, and illiterate voters. Reagan calls the right to vote a “crown jewel” of American liberties. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Congress, Ronald Reagan, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Senate refuses to pass an amendment to the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) that would restore voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences throughout the nation. The amendment was strongly opposed by senators from former Confederate states, who voted 18-4 against the measure, and the amendment fails on a floor vote, 63-31. [US Senate, 2/14/2002 pdf file; ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Entity Tags: US Senate

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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