Legacy of the Voting Rights Act – Expansions of the 1970s

President Gerald Ford signing the extensions to the Voting Rights Act into law, 1975 (National Archives)

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made discrimination at the ballot box unconstitutional, but it was its special provisions that helped maintain its power. From the original VRA’s passage, the special provisions were set to expire in 1970, which would effectively disarm the legislation. In spite of the massive increase in voter registration and turn out after the VRA, discrimination at the polls was still taking place in certain parts of the country. Congress determined that these incidents were numerous enough to justify extending the special provisions. Between the demands of the Nixon Administration and the Democratic and Republican parties, the extension of the VRA’s special provisions were hard fought in the Legislative and Executive branches of government. After a series of rejections and passages, the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 was signed into law on June 22. The provisions were extended for five more years, the coverage formula was strengthened, the bailout provisions were extended, and all tests and devices in voting were banned nationwide.

Two additional provisions were added to the VRA in 1970, with a particular emphasis on regulating the election of presidents. The first provision established a series of rules for voter registration and absentee voting, while the second modified state laws for voting qualification by prohibiting them from making their own durational residency requirements. A third new provision was proposed by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), asking for the voting age of all Americans to be 18 in all elections. At the time, the voting age for elections was 21, while the age for the military draft was 18. In the wake of the Vietnam War, more Americans believed that if someone was expected to serve in the country’s military at the age of 18, then they should be allowed to vote at the same age. The proposal was struck down by the Supreme Court in Oregon v. Mitchell in 1970, as it was determined that lowering the voting age was only constitutional in federal elections. In 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 for federal, state, and local elections across the country.

As the year 1975 began, the VRA’s special provisions were set to expire again. Then-President Gerald Ford openly supported granting the special provisions another extension, as his administration sought to improve relations between the African-American community and the U.S. Government. The Congressional hearings went by with notably few dissenting votes, to which Ford signed the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1975 into law on August 6. In addition to expanding the coverage formula’s power, the 1975 amendments made it a requirement for covered jurisdictions to have a 17 year record of not conducting any discriminatory voting practices before they could be eligible for bailouts. It was in the new amendments that another segment of minorities in the U.S. were addressed; linguistic minorities. Upon hearing testimonies of voters being discriminated against on account of their languages, Congress expanded the “test or device” ban to include ballots and other voting materials to be made available in different languages if a language minority group was a certain size. These provisions helped to strengthen the protections of those who were already protected by the VRA, as well as the new additions who needed the legislation to make their American rights that much more accessible.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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