Voting Rights Act

Barriers to Voting: Literacy Tests, Poll Taxes, and Intimidation

Literacy Tests

Literacy tests were first adopted by Southern state legislatures as a means to deny newly enfranchised Blacks the ability to vote in local, state, and federal elections. Generally, literacy tests were labeled as general application laws—meaning every voter would be potentially required to sit for a literacy test in order to vote—but as a matter of practice were only enforced against Black voters. 

One way literacy tests operated was by virtue of something called a grandfather clause. A grandfather clause means that there is a rule that applies to everyone generally except those who qualified to vote, or persons whose ancestors qualified to vote, prior to a particular date. Though these clauses were written without reference to race, the date chosen for the grandfather clause always dated back to just before the Civil War, when no Black person, freed or enslaved, would have legally qualified to vote. In 1915 the Supreme Court ruled that grandfather clauses in the context of voting were unconstitutional. Rather than expanding voting rights to Blacks as a practical matter, the decision had the unintended effect of disenfranchising poor Southern whites for a great deal of the early 20th century, while states and localities used other tactics to continue to disenfranchise Blacks.

Poll Taxes

Poll taxes were yet another way that states could “legally” disenfranchise Blacks, as well as Native Americans and poor Whites who immigrated after the Civil War. Poll taxes are a kind of tax that requires someone to pay a fixed rate in order to exercise his (and after the 19th amendment , her) right to vote. Like literacy tests, poll tax laws often had grandfather clauses which exempted voters who qualified to vote before the Civil War or, whose ancestors qualified to vote.

As late as 1937 the US Supreme Court ruled that in some instances poll taxes cold be constitutional, meaning that those too poor to pay the poll tax or those whom the poll tax was discriminatorily applied to would not be able to seek refuge in the courts. Less than thirty years later, and only one year before the VRA was enacted, the US ratified the 24th amendment which explicitly abolished the use of poll taxes or any other taxes used as a pre-condition to voting in federal elections (the amendment did not bad poll taxes in state or local elections). Two years after the ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court overruled its prior decision, and ruled that poll taxes were unconstitutional in federal as well as state and local elections. 


Another way voting rights were denied to Blacks was by threats or acts of intimidation. Intimidation occurred at the hands of both individuals and groups that held rallies and strategized to keep Black voters out of polling places. Unlike literacy tests and poll taxes, intimidation was not a legalized form of government driven discrimination. However, because many local and state governments tolerated intimidation of Blacks and other “undesirable” groups such as poor Whites and immigrants, intimidation, in some places, took on the color of government supported voter disenfranchisement.

  • To learn more about Literacy Tests, Poll Taxes, Intimidation, and other forms of disenfranchisement see here.
  • To learn more about State government constitutional amendments as vehicles for black disenfranchisement, see here.

President Johnson and the VRA

Though disenfranchisement of Black voters was not unknown to politicians in the 1950’s and 1960’s, few concerted efforts were undertaken to solve the problem. All this changed after Martin Luther King, Jr. started a campaign in Selma Alabama—one of many places Blacks were systemically denied the right to vote—to call national attention to the problem.

The problems in Selma were, as one source notes, notorious:

“For example, someone registering to vote was required to complete a form with more than 50 blanks, write from dictation a part of the Constitution, answer four questions on the governmental process, read four passages from the Constitution and answer four questions about the passages, and sign an oath of loyalty to the United States and to Alabama. When Dr. King began his registration drive, of the 9,877 who were registered to vote, 9,542 were white and 335 were black.”

King led several peaceful protests that were met with direct violent retaliation by the local authorities. In a matter of days, images of police lashing out at the protesters graced the televisions and newsreels of Americans across the country.

In a matter of weeks, President Johnson invited King and other Civil Rights leaders to the White House to discuss the possibility of federal legislation tailored to address the voting problems King and his campaigners drew attention to in Selma. Though Congress had just passed landmark legislation the year prior—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 –the unrest in Alabama and elsewhere proved that further intervention by the federal government was necessary.

Taking the meeting with King as a stepping stone, President Johnson met with the Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, as well as his Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, and started to sketch out the new law intended to give bite to the 15th amendment. Senator Mansfield later returned home to his constituency to push for public support of the new legislation.

President Johnson was finally able to send the bill to Congress on March 17, 1965. In a couple month’s time the Senate approved the bill. The House of Representatives, however, took much longer. After five very intense weeks of debate, the House approved a version of the bill. 

In a grand ceremony at the White House, President Johnson signed the VRA into law, with leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks at his side.

Voting Rights Act of 1965 101

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”) ((42 U.S.C. §§ 1973–1973aa-6) is a piece of landmark legislation that outlawed long-existing discriminatory voting practices in the US. Though the 15th Amendment extended voting rights to newly freed Blacks, discriminatory practices had long made realization of voting rights near impossible for Black in certain parts of the US.

The VRA prohibits states from creating prerequisites to voting, which was intended to explicitly outlaw things like literacy tests, which had long been used to prevent Black people from voting. The VRA also created a system under which states with a history of discriminatory voting practices (i.e. states known to have used literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting in the past) would have to get approval from the federal government before changes could be made at the state level.

Covered Jurisdictions

Though the VRA and a host of constitutional amendments ban the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation to prevent people from voting, the drafters of the VRA nevertheless feared that states might come up with new ways to disenfranchise voters that were not explicitly banned by the text of the VRA. In order to prevent creative new forms of disenfranchisement, the VRA has a specific part, known as Section 5, which requires some states and counties to go through special procedures to change their voting laws.

Under Section 5, an area called a covered jurisdiction must get permission from the federal government before it changes laws that have to do with voting. This means that if a covered jurisdiction wanted to insist on a test about state history in order for someone to be able to vote there, the jurisdiction would have to get permission from the federal government. To pass muster, the covered jurisdiction will have to prove that the proposed change (1) does not have the purpose and (2) will not have the effect of discriminating against potential voters on the basis of race.

The original set of covered jurisdictions were selected using a “formula” that picked out areas of the US that had used a test or device, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, as a prerequisite to vote.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the "coverage" provision in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, effectively eviscerating the effectiveness of the pre-clearance portion.