Topics / Voting Rights

How Lawsuits Protect Your Right to Vote

The Supreme Court dealt a crushing blow to voting rights protections in 2013, opening the floodgates to laws in predominantly Southern states making it harder for citizens to exercise their right to vote. In response, voting rights advocates are suing states engaged in voter suppression


In 2013, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act when it ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that states and localities with a history of suppressing voting rights no longer were required to submit changes in their election laws to the U.S. Justice Department for review. States lost no time in enacting strict voter identification laws among other forms of voter suppression following the ruling, which had a disproportionate impact on society’s most marginalized groups.

Here's how voting rights advocates have used litigation to fight back against voter suppression and uphold the right to vote for all citizens.

A SAMPLING OF RECENT COURT CASES ON VOTER SUPPRESSION 

2013: Texas

Texas Jayla Allen, center, is a plaintiff in a voter suppression lawsuit filed against Waller County in southeast Texas. She’s a student at Prairie View A&M University, a public historically black university. (Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Texas officials acted on the same day of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby decision to institute a strict voter identification law (SB 14) that had been previously blocked under the Voting Rights Act for its targeting of low-income communities and people of color. In response, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, and others filed a complaint on behalf of the Texas NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives.

RESULT: Ongoing
A lower court ruling against SB 14 prompted the state to pass a new voter identification measure (SB 5) that still ranks among the strictest and most discriminatory in the country. The new law was upheld in an April 2018 circuit court ruling, and the legal fight against it continues.

2016: North Carolina

North Carolina North Carolina State University students wait in line to vote in Raleigh, North Carolina, shortly after the state passed its stringent voter ID law disqualifying student ID cards as an accepted form of voter identification. (Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

North Carolina lawmakers acted shortly after the Supreme Court’s Shelby ruling to pass what was subsequently dubbed a “monster law” to suppress voting based on race. The bill (HB 589) included strict voter identification requirements, along with sharp cutbacks in early voting, an option overwhelmingly preferred by African Americans in the state. The Advancement Project, ACLU, and Southern Coalition for Social Justice, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, filed a lawsuit challenging the law.

RESULT: Struck Down
The North Carolina law was struck down by a federal judge who said it targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.”  In May 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it refused to review the lower court’s ruling, sending North Carolina lawmakers a message that their monster law was a bridge too far.

2016: Kansas

Kansas Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attend the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A Kansas law that took effect in 2013 required residents to present documents affirming their citizenship (either a passport or birth certificate) when registering to vote. The law was championed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the same official who led the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity, a body that disbanded in 2018 after failing to present any evidence of widespread voter fraud in the U.S. In 2016, the ACLU took the state to court on behalf of the League of Women Voters and individual Kansans, arguing that the law was an unconstitutional infringement on the right to vote.

RESULT: Struck Down
A federal district judge struck down the law in a 2016 ruling, dismissing Kobach’s argument that noncitizen voting was a problem in the state. 

2016–2018: Georgia

Georgia Voters wait in line for up to two hours to vote early at the Cobb County West Park Government Center for the 2018 midterm elections in Marietta, Georgia. (Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

In the lead-up to the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia, voting rights litigation groups and their partners fought a number of brazen attempts to suppress the vote. The ProGeorgia State Table, for example, was a key player in the legal fight against a state policy that placed the registrations of more than 50,000 voters on hold in the weeks leading up to the election. Under the “exact match” policy, which disproportionately affected African American voters, voter registration applications were placed on “pending” status if the registration information did not exactly match other government records — even if the mismatch was the result of a misplaced hyphen, administrative error, or other trivial issue. ProGeorgia joined with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to file a lawsuit to overturn the policy.

RESULT: Ongoing
This is the second time Georgia is being challenged over its “exact match” policy, which it first abandoned after facing a similar lawsuit in 2016. The current lawsuit is ongoing.