The Voting Rights Act of 1965 offered African Americans a way to get around the barriers at the state and local levels that had prevented them from exercising their 15th Amendment right to vote. After it was signed into law by LBJ, Congress amended it five more times to expand its scope and offer more protections. This law has been called one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted by the Dept. of Justice. Its gutting by the decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 has led to more restrictive voting laws in at least 7 states.
The sections of the Voting Rights Act affected by Shelby County were 4(b) and 5. Section 4(b) contained a coverage formula designed to encompass jurisdictions that were the most pervasively discriminatory and hold them liable to special provisions within the Voting Rights Act, to ensure that previously-barred minorities within those jurisdictions would be protected and able to practice their right to vote. The coverage formula was always considered controversial because it singled out specific jurisdictions, most of which were in the Deep South. In Shelby County, the Supreme Court declared the coverage formula unconstitutional because the criteria used were outdated and thus violated principles of equal state sovereignty and federalism. The other special provisions that were dependent on the coverage formula, such as the Section 5 pre-clearance requirement, remained valid law, but without a valid coverage formula these provisions became unenforceable. The pre-clearance requirement meant that jurisdictions which fell under 4(b) had to get federal approval to any changes they attempted to make in their election laws. With this requirement gone, states with a history of discriminatory behavior could now make changes without federal approval.
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