The United States Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed requiring would-be voters to take literacy tests and provided for federal registration of African American voters in areas that had less than 50% of eligible voters registered. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965.
The VRA was made necessary by the practices of the Democratic Party in the southern states. Although the right to vote is guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment, the Democratic Party argued that Primary elections were an internal party affair, and that the party was a "private club", so that the government had no authority over its criteria for membership and other factors relevant to participating in primary elections.
The campaign to bring about federal intervention to rectify this situation culminated in the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The Act has been renewed many times and remains in force as of 2004: its most used (and most controversial) provision requires that the United States Department of Justice "preclear" any change in a state's voting laws that may have a negative impact on the voting rights of minorities. This in effect gives the executive branch of the federal government a kind of veto power over state legislatures' periodic re-apportionment of legislative districts.
Some portions of the act are up for renewal in 2007, most notably section 5. Section 5 requires "covered jurisdictions" to obtain preclearance before implementing a change in a voting standard, practice or procedure. Section 5, as currently authorized by Congress, stays in effect until 2007. The burden of proof under Section 5 is on the governmental body to establish that the proposed change does not have a retrogressive purpose.
Currently, jurisdictions that must be precleared are:
States covered as a whole: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia (except Fairfax City, Frederick County, and Shenandoah County). Counties – California: Kings, Merced, Monterey, Yuba. Florida: Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, Monroe. New York: Bronx, Kings, New York. North Carolina: Anson, Beaufort, Bertie, Bladen, Camden, Caswell, Chowan, Cleveland, Craven, Cumberland, Edgecombe, Franklin, Gaston, Gates, Granville, Greene, Guilford, Halifax, Harnett, Hertford, Hoke, Jackson, Lee, Lenoir, Martin, Nash, Northhampton, Onslow, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Person, Pitt, Robeson, Rockingham, Scotland, Union, Vance, Washington, Wayne, Wilson. South Dakota: Shannon, Todd. Townships – Michigan: Allegan County: Clyde Township. Saginaw County: Buena Vista Township. New Hampshire: Cheshire County: Rindge Town. Coos County: Millsfield Township; Pinkhams Grant; Stewartstown Town; Stratford Town. Grafton County: Benton Town. Hillsborough County: Antrim Town. Merrimack County: Boscawen Town. Rockingham County: Newington Town. Sullivan County: Unity Town.