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Past and Present

Past & Present: The VRA's 'Coverage Formula'

Win McNamee / Getty Images / npr.org

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Considered one of the most effective pieces of federal legislation, this act secured nationwide minority voting rights. While previous legislation had attempted to do this, the sweeping infrastructure of federal oversight that developed through a series of “special provisions” differentiates this act.

Congress first recognized African American male suffrage, and its responsibility to uphold it, with the 15th Amendment in 1870. But during the ensuing years, state and municipal governments passed Jim Crow laws that disproportionately disfranchised African Americans, with very little resistance from the federal government.

Therefore, the “special provisions” worked in two tiers. First, the VRA prohibited eligibility provisions and racial gerrymandering for all states and voting districts. Second, it established a “coverage formula” that determined which states and districts needed additional federal oversight. To become “covered”, states and districts needed to have used a test or device to restrict voter registration or had less than half of its eligible citizens voting in the November 1964 elections. The Act then required covered jurisdictions to receive Justice Department approval for new election laws and redistricting maps. In addition, Congress could appoint federal observers to oversee poll workers and voter conduct in any covered voting district and precinct.

Congress renewed these provisions between 1970 and 2006. In 2006, however, Congress repealed the federal observer provision. In addition, the debate over the coverage formula also signaled a potential shift in support for this level of federal oversight, leading to the Supreme Court declaring it unconstitutional in 2013. While the Court saw coverage as unnecessary, since 2013, poll closings and voter roll purges have predominantly affected communities of color.