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The right to vote is a “civil right” that is protected by the United States Constitution. Also known as “civil liberties,” civil rights are those fundamental freedoms or privileges that are given to people by virtue of their citizenship. Some of the civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution are: the freedoms of speech, religion, and the press, as well as the right to equality in public places or accommodations.

In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was added to the United States Constitution. It guaranteed the right to vote to all men regardless of race or color.

The Nineteenth Amendment, which was enacted in 1920, guaranteed the right to vote regardless of sex. The right to vote was given in 1971 by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to those persons who were 18 years of age or older.

How are civil rights enforced?

Civil rights are enforced by various federal, state, and local laws and regulations. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.

Although the Constitution guaranteed the right to vote, in practice, not all citizens were permitted to vote. As a result, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act prohibits voting discrimination against all people, including minorities and people with limited English speaking skills. The Voting Rights Act requires that state and local elections must be equally open to all minority voters. It also provides that each vote is equal.

There is a special provision or section of the Voting Rights Act that requires certain states, counties, or municipalities to get approval or “preclearance” before implementing any changes to voting procedures or processes. For example, if a county in a “covered state” wishes to change district voting lines, it must first obtain preclearance from federal authorities.

What is “vote dilution?”

The Voting Rights Act makes it unlawful for a state or local government to “dilute” the votes of racial minorities. This means that a state or city cannot draw or create district voting lines that tend to divide minority communities, thus often making their votes less effective. The Voting Rights Act prohibits any election schemes, including the drawing of voting districts, that deny minority voters a fair opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.

What if my voting rights are violated?

A citizen who believes that his or her voting rights have been violated can file a lawsuit in federal court to challenge any allegedly discriminatory voting practices or processes.

The United States Department of Justice, through its Civil Rights Division, works with states and municipalities to help identify and overcome discriminatory voting practices. For instance, the Civil Rights Division has sent its personnel to help monitor elections in counties where there is a large percentage of non-English speaking voters.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.