The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, was designed to help protect the rights of newly emancipated slaves from discrimination and to insure them a voice in choosing state and national representation. It states that no one can be denied the right to vote because of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It also gives the federal government the ability to enforce the Amendment by passing legislation.
Jim Crow Laws
- After passage of the 15th Amendment, many state and local governments enacted laws that enforced racial segregation, claiming that blacks and whites could be segregated as long as they where treated equally. In particular, many local and state laws required black citizens to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes before they could register to vote. These came to be known as "Jim Crow" laws.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
- One year after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into Law the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act made it illegal for any state or local government to require prerequisites or other qualifications for a citizen to vote, and for state or local governments to infringe in any way upon the rights of citizens to vote. Subsequent amendments have been made to this act, such as the inclusion of a provision stating that ballots written in Spanish much be provided in states with a high percentage of Spanish-speaking citizens.
Voter Bill of Rights
- There are many state derivatives of the National Voting Rights Act. For example, California's "Voter Bill of Rights" states that any voter who is a U.S. citizen, over age 18, and is in line at the polls before they close has the right to vote. It also ensures the rights to a secret ballot, to request a new ballot if you make a mistake, to assistance in completing your ballot, to cast an absentee ballot, to get a ballot written in a foreign language, to ask questions about the election process and to report election fraud.
- These voting rights measures are controversial. In particular, the National Voting Rights Act requires many voting districts to receive preclearance from the federal government before they enact changes in its voting regulations. Some critics argue that this is unfair, and that those districts are being penalized in the present for mistakes made in the past; others argue that the historical fallout from racial segregation is still present in the South and that preclearance ensures equality. Some critics argue that the right to multilingual ballots hurts America's solidarity by undermining its national language; respondents argue that multilingual ballots ensure the right of every American to vote and that enforcing a one-language ballot is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Two recent Supreme Court decisions on controversial issues regarding the Voting Rights Act include "Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder" (2009), in which the court issued a "Constitutional avoidance" in order to not make a ruling, citing instead the district's right to make an appeal for exemption from preclearance laws, and "Bartlett v. Strickland" (2009), in which the Court decided that voting districts cannot be drawn to favor minorities.