Voting Rights Act of 1965

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This legislation by Congress in 1965 opened voting participation primarily in the American South after a century of legal and social restrictions. The federal government assumed supervision over voter registration and suspended literacy tests and other such voter qualification practices that prevented African Americans from participation as voters and candidates in local, state, and national elections.

This sweeping civil rights act marked the apogee of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1960's. It suspended literacy tests that were long used in the southern states to preclude African Americans from voting. The U.S. attorney general was authorized to appoint federal registrars to oversee voter registration in political subdivisions where literacy tests were previously used and where fewer than half the voting-age residents were registered to vote or actually voted in 1964. The focus of this enforcement was particularly on the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. At his farewell presidential news conference, President Lyndon B. Johnson referred to the act as his greatest accomplishment.


The Civil Rights movement gained ground slowly in the 1950's. The first civil rights act after the Civil War did not pass Congress until 1957. It gave power to the U.S. attorney general to protect federal voting rights, created a civil rights commission, and provided a civil rights division in the Justice Department. A 1960 act strengthened the enforcement provisions for the earlier act and added tools to enforce school desegregation orders. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a major step forward. It passed the Congress after the Senate broke a historic filibuster. It outlawed discrimination in public accommodations and employment. It set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It strengthened enforcement of voting laws.

In 1964 Democrat Lyndon Johnson won a sweeping presidential election victory over Barry Goldwater, his Republican opponent, with a 61–39 percentage popular victory and a 486 to 52 advantage in electoral votes. The partisan division favored Democrats over Republicans by 68 to 32 in the Senate and 295 to 140 in the House. Significant as the 1964 Civil Rights Act was, voting participation by blacks, particularly in the South, continued to be inhibited by literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation. Black civil rights leaders chose Selma, Alabama (Dallas County), for demonstrations in behalf of voting rights beginning in March 1965. According to Congressional Quarterly, despite a clear majority of voting-age blacks in the Dallas County population, of 9,877 registered voters, 9,542 were white and 335 were black. In the previous two years, only 93 of 795 black applicants were allowed to register but 745 of 1,232 whites were accepted.

President Johnson addressed the issue with a nationally televised speech and an administration bill introduced in the Senate with 66 cosponsors on March 18, 1965. Southern Democrats attempted to slow the legislative progress of the bill and pick it apart with amendments. They succeeded in eliminating a ban on poll taxes from the bill. The Senate closed debate with a cloture vote that carried on May 25. The cloture vote was only the second one in the Senate’s history to pass when bringing a civil rights bill to the Senate floor for a vote. The bill carried in the Senate the next day, 77–19. “Yes” votes came from forty-seven Democrats and thirty Republicans. Opposing were seventeen southern Democrats and two Republicans.

The House version of the bill did include the poll tax ban. It was delayed in the House Rules Committee by its southern chairman, Howard W. Smith (D-VA), but passed in July by a 333–85 vote. In conference the poll tax ban was dropped and a conference report passed 328–74 in the House and 79–18 in the Senate. President Johnson signed the bill into law (P.L. 89–110) on August 6, 1965.

The results of the law and the work of the federal registrars in registering new voters produced immediate and dramatic results. In the former Confederate states, the number of registered black voters increased by nearly 1 million between 1964 and 1968. Registration by blacks in Alabama rose from 23 percent of voting-age population in 1964 to 56.7 percent in 1968. In Mississippi it rose from 6.7 percent to 59.4 percent in the same period. White voter registration and especially election turnout rose dramatically as well. Comparing turnout in 1962 to 1968, the number of participants rose from 10 million to nearly 15 million voters in the old Confederacy. Moreover, during the first decade that the act was in effect, the number of black elected officials in the seven targeted southern states grew from fewer than 100 to 963.


Having lost in the Congress, Southerners opposed to the Voting Rights Act brought to the federal courts their argument that the federal law was an unconstitutional intrusion upon the right of the states to enact and administer voting and election laws. South Carolina challenged the validity of the law and sought a court injunction to prevent U.S. Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach from enforcing it. Five states filed briefs in support of South Carolina, and 21 filed in support of the attorney general. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for a nearly unanimous Court.

The voting rights act was designed by Congress to banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting, which has infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century. The Act creates stringent new remedies for voting discrimination where it persists on a pervasive scale, and in addition the statute strengthens existing remedies for pockets of voting discrimination elsewhere in the country. Congress assumed the power to prescribe these from [paragraph] 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which authorizes the National Legislature to effectuate by “appropriate” measures the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination in voting. We hold that the sections of the act, which are properly before us, are an appropriate means for carrying out Congress’ constitutional responsibilities and are consonant with all other provisions of the Constitution. We therefore deny South Carolina’s request that enforcement of these sections of the Act be enjoined.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected South Carolina’s argument that Congress may appropriately do no more than forbid in general terms violations of citizens’ voting rights. Its reading of the Constitution justified acts of Congress to fashion specific remedies to ameliorate voting discrimination.


The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was written to be effective for five years. In 1969 President Nixon proposed to extend the act for another five years but remove the focus on seven southern states. Civil rights leaders wanted the act unchanged and simply extended for five years. The president’s version passed the House, but the Senate adopted a five-year extension of the 1965 law with the addition of a provision to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18 years of age. In June 1970 the House accepted the Senate version. President Nixon signed the bill despite his disapproval of changing the voting age by law instead of by a constitutional amendment. The Supreme Court did uphold the lower voting age, but limited its effect to federal elections. (In 1971 Congress proposed the Twenty-sixth Amendment to constitutionally empower 18-year-olds with the vote, and it was ratified by the states in record time.)

In 1975 voting rights proponents moved to extend the 1965 Act for ten years with coverage extended to Spanish-speaking Americans. Although there were efforts from southern Democrats to delay the bill, two successful cloture votes paved the way to passage. However, an amendment reduced the extension to seven years. The House accepted the Senate amendments, and the bill passed easily and was signed by President Gerald Ford.

By 1982 a broad coalition of civil rights groups had organized a widespread popular and lobbying effort to renew and extend the life of the Voting Rights Act. The extension of the law was never in serious political jeopardy. It extended for twenty-five years the enforcement provisions of the law, requiring states with a history of discrimination to get Justice Department approval for changes in the election laws or procedures.

As amended, the act allows private parties to prove a violation of the act by showing that some election procedure “results” in voting discrimination. In court cases applying the law, the court would judge the “totality of circumstances” to conclude whether there had been a violation of the law. This “results” provision was a particular response to an earlier Supreme Court decision that required proof of “intent” to discriminate. “Intent” is difficult to verify empirically and convincingly in either a judicial or administrative proceeding as well as in the court of public opinion. “Results,” on the other hand, can be validated with various forms of evidence and empirical data. Thus, the “results” standard improved the enforceability of the act.

Having chosen to enforce results rather than intent, the Senate passed the amended bill 85–8, and the House accepted the Senate’s amendments without debate by unanimous consent. Most of the prior opposition from the South had been extinguished by the fact that by 1982 African Americans were a significant part of the electorate, increasingly represented in their interests by the senators and representatives of the southern states.


The changes brought about by the Voting Rights Act came to have huge partisan implications, particularly in the former Confederate states. The cultural and legal forces that kept whites in control of the southern states in, for example, the 87th Congress (elected in 1962) meant that one party overwhelmingly dominated those 11 states. Democrats won 21 of 22 Senate seats and 95 of 106 House seats with very low levels of voter participation. As new voters entered the electorate, party competition changed. The South also underwent great population change as people and jobs moved to the sunbelt states. Redistricting reshaped congressional boundaries. By 2002 the electoral and political changes made the former Confederate states fully as competitive as other regions in the United States. Only 9 of 22 Senate seats were held by Democrats, and Republicans won 76 of 132 House seats as well. The increase in Republican representation in the South changed the partisan balance in both the House and Senate. In 1994 Republicans gained majority control in the House, breaking the Democratic control that had dated from 1954. In the more competitive Senate, partisan control has alternated between two parties since 1980.

Another major consequence of the Voting Rights Act was the changes it brought in the committee leadership of the Congress. In 1965, the year that the act was first adopted, southern Democrats dominated the committee structure of the Congress in the chairmanships. Southerners held the chairmanships in ten of sixteen Senate standing committees and thirteen of twenty in the House. Less than forty years later, the committee chairmen for the 108th Congress, elected in 2002, included only a few members from the former Confederate states. They held only four of seventeen Senate standing committee chairmanships and four of the twenty chairmanships in the House.


While the original Voting Rights Act had enormous consequences on voting participation by both blacks and whites in the southern states, the 1982 amendments were highly consequential as well. In a landmark case arising in North Carolina, Thornburg v. Gingles (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court forbade the state from drawing congressional districts that would dilute minority voting strength. North Carolina summarized the rules from Thornburg and cases following it for its legislators after the 2000 Census:

All 100 counties are subject to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which may require drawing districts which contain a majority minority population if three threshold conditions are present: 1) a minority group is large enough and lives closely enough together so that a relatively compact district in which the group constitutes a majority can be drawn, 2) the minority group has a history of political cohesiveness or voting as a group, and 3) the white majority has a history of voting as a group sufficient to allow it to usually defeat the minority group’s preferred candidate. The totality of circumstances, including a past history of discrimination that continues to affect the exercise of a minority group’s right to vote, must also be taken into consideration.

While there remain unresolved questions about redistricting, it is clear that the Voting Rights Act as amended has broad application and that its provisions have enhanced opportunities for various minority candidates in the electoral process. The results of the Voting Rights Act have dramatically and literally changed the complexion of public office holders. The 107th Congress included thirty-six African American members in the House along with nineteen Hispanics. Black elected officials as of January 2001 numbered 9,101, a sixfold increase since 1970. In fact, the number of black elected officials in Mississippi and Alabama at last report (1,648) exceeds the number for the entire nation in 1970. Recent trends suggest that, increasingly, minority elected officials win office from constituencies without a majority of minority voters. Moreover, Hispanics have become the largest minority in the United States whose electoral prospects benefit from the Voting Rights Act.


The Voting Rights Act was one of the most dramatic and far-reaching reforms of social and political justice in the last half of the twentieth century. It imposed the power of the federal government in a strongly intrusive fashion upon a substantive policy area, the regulation of voting in elections that previously had been almost exclusively the business of the states. The Supreme Court confirmed the constitutional authority of the federal government to protect the rights of citizens from intrusions and discrimination by state governing authorities. Thereafter the states could no longer enact and enforce discriminatory procedures that prevented protected classes of people from full citizenship. The act addressed and protected the right of all citizens, particularly those previously systematically and prejudiciously prevented from voting, to use the vote to pursue their political interests. The act stimulated voting and all other forms of political participation immediately in the South. Very soon, the exercise of those rights reshaped the political institutions and policies of the United States. Over time it changed the political balance of power far beyond the South in all aspects of politics and in many aspects of American culture. Its consequences continue to affect the shape and outcomes of American politics.

Of course this legislation did not immediately or fully reverse the consequences of long-standing racial exclusion. Having suffered so long the denial of legitimate rights, African Americans lacked participatory attitudes and traditions. So the remedies provided in the law have had a mixture of consequences. Some came about quickly, but others have necessarily taken root slowly and gradually.


D. A. Bositis, Black Elected Officials: A Statistical Summary 2001 (Washington, DC: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 2003); Congress and the Nation, vols. 2–4 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1969, 1973, 1977); and William R. Gilkeson, Legislator’s Guide to Legislative and Congressional Redistricting, 3rd ed. (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina General Assembly Research Division, 2001).

Jack R. Van Der Slik

Last Updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Civil Rights Act of 1965; Elections; Great Society; Johnson, Lyndon B.