African Americans and the Expiration of the Voting Rights Act

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One of the many urban legends making the rounds—at the speed of a mouse click, thanks to the Internet—states that the rights of African Americans to vote will expire in 2007. This story has been circulating for several years and, rightfully so, has upset and angered millions of African Americans who thought that their voting rights would be affected.

First of all, what was the Voting Rights Act designed to do?

African Americans were granted the legal right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment, which became law in 1870 after the Civil War and barred racial discrimination in the polling booth. However, some racist state and local officials continued to wield their power by systematically depriving black voters of their rights through the institution of literacy tests or other so-called "qualifying conditions."

The purpose of the Voting Rights Act was to grant the federal government control of the voter registration process in any state or voting district that, in 1964, had set up any such stipulation and in which fewer than half of the voting-age residents had either registered or voted. Six Southern states and several counties in several other states were then covered by the VRA. If any of these jurisdictions wanted to amend any aspect of its voting rules and regulations, it was required to bring the proposed change before federal officials for review. This was meant to prohibit the institution from doing anything with discriminatory intent or effect. Additional provisions in the VRA included a ban on the future use of literacy tests to determine voter eligibility and a pledge of legal action by the attorney general if the use of poll taxes in state elections was continued.

The Voting Rights Act was enacted for an initial five-year phase. It was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965. Since then, it has been both extended and expanded, and new requirements have been introduced. One of these new requirements stipulates that polling places must provide bilingual election materials. President Ronald Reagan signed a 25-year extension in 1982.

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