The Voting Rights Act

A National Franchise

The changes in voting law in the United States between 1960 and 1975 were revolutionary. That period of time witnessed not only the enfranchisement of African-Americans, but also the elimination of nearly all remaining restrictions on the right to vote for adult citizens.

Poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, good character provisions, property tax requirements, and vouching requirements had all been permanently eliminated. Residency requirements had been drastically reduced. And the voting age everywhere had been lowered to 18. 

The franchise in the United States was now broader than it had ever been. It is difficult to make an accurate estimate, but it is likely that more than 20 million voters were enfranchised in the United States between 1960 and 1975. 

The legal revolution during this period was made possible by aggressive Congressional action and a series of path breaking Supreme Court decisions. The franchise was effectively nationalized, states being stripped of most of their control over suffrage requirements. 

It took a great confluence of historical factors to make such a revolutionary transformation possible. Class tensions were easing at the same time that the civil rights movement placed inexorable pressure on the nation for reform. The ideological climate of the Cold War heightened the urgency for American to refocus on its democratic values. On top of all of this, the national government had asserted its supremacy over the states in numerous legal and political domains following the New Deal. By the 1960s it had become clear that universal suffrage would not be achieved by the decentralized actions of the 50 states, each with its own historical legacy and political conflicts. It would instead require the concerted action of the national government to bring the country’s franchise in line with its democratic values. 

As we have seen, moving the country towards universal suffrage was not accomplished by a single action—no one law or Constitutional amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all Americans. Instead, true to the historical precedents of American suffrage, it took a series of diverse actions—state and local laws, judicial decisions, and Constitutional amendments.

The Value of the Vote

And history has seen a continuing expansion of the scope of the right of suffrage in this country. The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government. And the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.

-Chief Justice Earl Warren, Majority Opinion, Reynolds v. Simms (1964)

The achievement of a broad national franchise with few restrictions did not bring an end to controversies over voting in the United States. Disputes over what restrictions could legally be placed on the franchise gave way quite naturally to conflicts over the value of each individual voter’s ballot. Instead of fighting over who could or could not vote, the field of battle shifted to how much each persons vote would count. 

The dramatic movements made in the 1960s towards reforming the scope of the franchise made judges, lawmakers, and voters alike examine the institutional structures around voting—registration processes, voting precincts, and representative districts. After all, these were the things that structured and gave meaning to votes once they could be cast. And not surprisingly, they also became the focus of political gamesmanship—and repeated attempts were made, particularly in the South, to reduce the impact of the enfranchisement of new portions of the population by altering the structures in which voting was embedded. This conflict manifested itself in things like gerrymandering, changing the size of electoral districts, and changing the very structure of representation itself. 

One Person, One Vote

Conflicts over the value of votes had reached the Supreme Court by the early 1960s. The most significant ruling on the subject was probably Baker v. Carr, handed down in 1962. A divided Court ruled that the apportionment of state legislative seats in Tennessee could be challenged in federal court under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, injecting the Court for the first time in the highly political arena of districting and apportionment. Though the decision was a narrow, technical one, its implications were far-reaching, laying the groundwork for the now-famous maxim “one person, one vote.”

One year after Baker v. Carr, the Court struck down Georgia’s longstanding “county unit” primary system on the grounds that it weighed “rural votes more heavily than urban votes and weighed some small rural counties heavier than other large rural counties.” The ruling in this case, Gray v. Sanders, stipulated that the equal protection clause, as well as the basic tenants of American democracy, guaranteed citizens some parity in the value of their votes. 

The Court continued to rely on this reasoning the next year in Reynolds v. Sims, striking down Alabama’s districting system, which gave 25% of the state’s population a majority of the seats in the state legislature. Grounding the decision in the equal protection clause once again, Chief Justice Warren, wrote in the majority opinion “legislators represent people, not trees or acres” and that the “right to vote” of those living in underrepresented areas “is simply not the same right to vote as that of those living in a favorite part of the state.”

By 1965, then, the Constitution had been interpreted to guarantee not only the right of citizens to register and vote on an equal basis with other citizens, but that their vote should carry an equal weight as the other votes cast in the same election. 

Voters and Community Interests

This sheds some light on the related issue of representation. Historically, the republican structure of the United States had been grounded upon the idea that the interests of both individuals and communities could be represented in geographically-defined representative districts. The idea was that though the choice of particular representatives belonged to individual voters, the communities they represented had some collective interest and voice in governance. This is why counties were represented directly in most state legislatures and each state in the Union was granted two senators. 

But over the course of the late 20th century, the American population became far more mobile than it had ever been. People’s primary community identification shifted away from geographic factors, and membership in less tangible types of communities—religious, racial, ethnic, or occupational—became more salient in defining community interests.

But there were strong historical forces that favored an individualistic conception of the right to vote, so communities would need to find ways to ensure their interests were represented in existing geographically-defined districts. The Voting Rights Acts would give them some assistance, requiring the creation of “majority minority” districts, in which the majority of the eligible voters are racial or ethnic minorities. This added layer of insurance that minorities would be able to elect candidates of their choice was a way of protecting both the individual voting rights of citizens who had historically be disenfranchised, as well as their political interests of their communities, which until then had not received representation.