The Voting Rights Act, 1965 and beyond

The history of U.S. voting rights is complicated: First, in fits and starts, more and more Americans have gained the right to vote; and second, the federal government has played an important role over time in both securing and hindering these rights.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • explain why the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act
  • evaluate the impact of the Voting Rights Act
  • explain current challenges to the Voting Rights Act
  • understand new threats to voting rights
  • explore how to protect voting rights, with particular emphasis on the state where they live
Essential Questions
  • What did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 say?
  • Why was the Voting Rights Act necessary? What effects has it had?
  • Why have some people challenged the Voting Rights Act in recent years?
  • How are voting rights threatened today? How can we protect those rights?



Please note this lesson was originally written to be used with NBC Learn videos but those videos are no longer available.  The transcripts to those videos are linked in the materials list above.

This lesson focuses on the 1965 law that aimed to ensure that African Americans would no longer be denied their right to vote. Students will read a summary of the Voting Rights Act to find out what it said, then study data that show the law’s impact. They watch two NBC news reports about a 2009 Supreme Court challenge to the Voting Rights Act and the Court’s ruling on that challenge. The lesson has them consider the grounds on which people have based their objections to the Voting Rights Act.

Coming up to the present, students study a graph and a map that show the potential effects of efforts to curtail voting rights. Finally, students explore efforts in their own states to limit voter participation and how to counter those efforts, or the success of efforts in their area to increase voter registration and participation.



franchise [ fran-chahyz ] (noun) the right to vote

disenfranchisement [ dis-en-fran-chahyz-muhnt ] (noun)the act of depriving someone of the right to vote

abridge [ uh-brij ] (verb) to deprive; to limit

voter registration [ voh-ter rej-uh-strey-shuhn ] (noun) an action taken by an eligible voter to have her voting qualification verified (usually at the county level) so that he can vote in elections 


Additional Resources



What the Voting Rights Act Said

1. Watch a short NBC news clip from 1965 that reports on then-President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. Seeing the video will bring you to the starting point of this lesson, an examination of that 1965 law.

2. In 1965, the United States enacted the Voting Rights Act. It laid out strict rules that would enable African Americans to exercise their right to vote, particularly in Southern states that had created significant barriers to prevent them from doing do. (Note: If your students have not completed Lesson 2 in this series, you can provide some background on the Voting Rights Act by having them watch this 14-minute video from the NBC Learn archives.) To learn what the Voting Rights Act said, read the handout The Voting Rights Act of 1965. When you’ve read it, write a few sentences to explain what barriers to voting the new law banned, and why the law was necessary. 


The Effects of the Voting Rights Act

3. The Voting Rights Act had both immediate and long-term effects. Look at the graphics Percentage of Registered Voters in Black Voting-Age Population and the Number of Black Legislators in the South (1868-1900 and 1960-1992) handouts.

a. Complete the activities on each handout to help you understand the data.

b. Summarize the effects that the Voting Rights Act has had. Would you say it has been successful? Why or why not?


Challenges to the Voting Rights Act

4. The Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 1970, 1965, 1982 and 2006. In each instance, Congress looked at evidence that showed that African Americans’ voting rights were still in danger in the states identified in the original 1965 law. In 2009 and 2013, the Voting Rights Act faced challenges in the Supreme Court.

a. Watch these two NBC Learn videos about the 2009 challenge: Supreme Court Re-Examines 1965 Voting Rights Act and Supreme Court Narrowly Allows 1965 Voting Rights Act to Stand. As you watch, make notes about why the law was challenged. On what grounds was it challenged? Why did the Supreme Court uphold the law? With what reservations?

b. Read the handout Voting Issues Today about the successful 2013 challenge, Shelby County v. Holder. What would constitute evidence that the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act had accomplished its purpose? What would consitute evidence that it had not? What are the potential consequences if, over time, it is revealed that preclearance has not accomplished its purpose?


Current Challenges to Voting Rights

5. As you know, civil rights activists struggled and sacrificed for a long time to push the federal government to take action to ensure that African Americans could exercise their right to vote. Recently new roadblocks have arisen that many people think threaten the hard-earned successes of the civil rights movement. In many states, new restrictions have been enacted for the stated reason of combating voter fraud. In reality, instances of voting fraud are nearly non-existent. The new restrictions actually threaten the voting rights of African Americans and Latinos, as well as young voters and low-income people.

Look at this map and this graph that show how new voter registration requirements affect different groups of Americans. 

With a small group, analyze the map and the graph. Discuss these questions: What does each document show about who is or would be most affected by government ID requirements or other voting restrictions? What conclusions can you draw when you look at both documents together? Compare your conclusions about these documents with what you know about how African Americans in the South were prevented from voting in the century between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Make a chart that shows the similarities and differences.

6. Divide the class into groups. Assign each group one of the following current efforts to limit voter registration: end of same-day voter registration, end of “motor voter” registration, residency requirements that affect college students, proof of citizenship requirements and restrictions on voting for those with felony convictions. With your group, research the challenge you have been assigned. Make a poster presenting what you have learned. In your poster, explain what your group’s challenge has in common with techniques that have been used in the past to limit access to voting. Do you think these new efforts could be challenged on the basis of the Voting Rights Act? Why or why not? 


Voting Rights in Your State: What Can You Do?

7. What’s happening in your state regarding voting rights? Are there any attempts to limit voting rights? Do some research to find out. If you find that there are, find out who is fighting to maintain or expand voting rights and how they are doing so. Invite someone to speak with your class about those efforts. Find out what your class can do to participate, then do it. 


Activities and embedded assessments address the following standards from the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts: CCSS: R.1, R.7, W.9, SL.1, SL.2