Nixon, the Courts, and the VRA
On June 25, The Supreme Court of the United States struck down Section 4b of the 1965 Voting Rights Act after a 5-4 vote in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. Section 4b provided the formula to determine which states and local governments needed approval from the Department of Justice before making any changes to its voting laws.
The formula stated that federal preclearance was required if the jurisdiction met at least one of the following:
1. Some form of “test or device” was being used to restrict the opportunity to register and vote.
2. Less than 50% of all eligible citizens were registered to vote on November 1, 1964, or 50% of eligible citizens voted in the presidential election of November 1964.
The court’s majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, found that the coverage formula had become irrelevant, having been “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.” Although the Voting Rights Act has been renewed several times, including as recently as 2006, the data provided for the coverage formula had not been updated since 1975.
On June 22, 1970, President Nixon signed a bill which extended for the first time the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and introduced several new revisions that would be made to the original Act.
“In the 5 years since its enactment, close to 1 million negroes have been registered to vote for the first time and more than 400 Negro officials have been elected to local and state offices. These are more than election statistics; they are statistics of hope and dramatic evidence that the American system works. They stand as an answer to those who claim that there is no recourse except to the streets.” –Statement on Signing the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 (June 22, 1970)
The changes included the ban on a nationwide level toward the use of literacy tests or other devices as a prerequisite to vote. In addition, state residency requirements for voting for President were also eliminated.
It is important to note that during the renewal of the VRA under President Nixon, the Act was simultaneously updated—made to better serve the people it was meant to protect. It would be difficult to argue that any of the same formulas used to determine a particular status, such as poverty, would also remain effective if they were not updated over a forty year period, as the section of the VRA recently struck down had not been.
Arguably the largest alteration to the Act was the provision which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
Despite being in favor of the 18 year old vote, President Nixon believed that it was not within the rights of Congress to change the voting age without a constitutional amendment. However, President Nixon decided against a veto due to the fact he would have been required to veto the entire bill. As a result, Nixon chose to let the courts make the decision regarding the constitutionality of the new provision.
President Nixon’s belief was confirmed by the Supreme Court just six months later in the case of Oregon vs. Mitchell, when it was ruled that Congress had exceeded its power by setting a voting age. This was the first major step by the court to curb a section of the VRA that overstepped its authority. In the more recent case, the Court’s actions also provide a remedy, this time for the use of an outdated formula.
The 26th Amendment, which was adopted formally on July 1, 1971, would set the minimum voting age at 18 for all local, State, and Federal elections.
“Some 11 million young men and women who have participated in the life of our Nation through their work, their studies, and their sacrifices for its defense, are now to be fully included in the electoral process of our country. For more than 20 years, I have advocated the 18 year old vote. I heartily congratulate our young citizens on having gained this right.” –Statement about ratification of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution (June 30, 1971)