Over the past year, restrictive voting laws and gerrymandered maps were brought to court by political groups, voting and civil rights organizations and individual voters. Since few cases reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the vast majority of these lawsuits are resolved elsewhere and have very tangible impacts on voters and voting access.
Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer and founder of Democracy Docket, recently wrote: “While the headlines focus on how courts handle the most sensational attacks on our democracy — from the trials related to the Jan. 6 insurrection to the latest subpoena struggles with former President Donald Trump and his allies — it is the daily work of state and federal courts to ensure voting rights are protected one case at a time.” In the months leading up to Election Day 2022, court victories from around the country might not have made national headlines but were of utmost importance to the populations most affected by them.
With the 2022 midterm elections behind us, we’re highlighting five major wins this election cycle. Hear directly from the voters and organizations on the frontlines of democracy on what these wins meant to them and their constituencies.
North Carolina’s limits on voter assistance were permanently blocked this summer, permitting voters with disabilities to exercise their right guaranteed by federal law.
For years, North Carolina state laws restricted who could help voters with disabilities request and complete an absentee ballot; the state imposed that only the voters’ close relatives or legal guardians could assist. In 2020, Disability Rights North Carolina saw a number of voters disenfranchised by a combination of lockdowns over COVID-19 that limited familial visitors to in-patient facilities and North Carolina’s strict laws limiting voter assistance. “It was effectively impossible for some people to cast an absentee ballot during the worst of the pandemic,” Corye Dunn, director of public policy at Disability Rights North Carolina, told Democracy Docket. “People who have been voting for decades, reliably, were told, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a mechanism to support you in voting.’ And that was really heartbreaking to see.”
“We had conversations with legislators and the state board of elections and others over the years that we believed that the restriction was impermissible under federal law,” Dunn explained. “And so we had to go the route of the courts.” Disability Rights North Carolina sued in federal court, arguing that the challenged provisions were a clear violation of Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which mandates that individuals with disabilities “be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice.”
Nearly a year after the lawsuit was filed, in July 2022 a court permanently blocked the problematic North Carolina laws. Dunn added that the original laws may have been well-intended efforts to prevent exploitation, but they ended up curtailing the rights of those they sought to protect. The lawsuit clarified that the federal VRA prevailed over state law, enabling organizations like Disability Rights North Carolina to effectively conduct outreach and voter education work. “We have reached more people than ever this year. We have monitored poll sites in more locations than ever and we have shared information with voters in more counties than ever,” Dunn elaborated on the 2022 efforts, noting, for example, that Disability Rights North Carolina partnered with trusted messengers like Meals on Wheels to deliver reliable information.
In September, laws that disproportionately impacted Native American communities were struck down in Montana.
On Sept. 30, a Montana trial court struck down three voter suppression laws for violating the Montana Constitution: one law eliminated Election Day registration; another banned paid ballot collection and curtailed other forms of ballot return assistance and the third law changed identification requirements to vote, making it more difficult to vote with a student ID. Western Native Voice, a Montana-based organization focused on civic engagement and advocacy among the state’s Native American population, was a plaintiff group challenging two of these three laws.
Keaton Sunchild, the political director for Western Native Voice, previously discussed these laws in an op-ed: “While ballot collection is not limited to Native Americans, statistics show that Native voters rely on this service more so than any other voters since they often lack reliable transportation, have spotty or non-existent internet service and are located in some of the most rural areas of Montana.” After a multi-week trial over these laws during the summer, Western Native Voice designed two Election Day plans contingent on the outcome of the court case, “one that included the ruling that we got and one that included the laws being upheld and ballot collection and Election Day registration not being allowed,” Sunchild explained to Democracy Docket.
Fortunately, a Montana court found that these laws violated the state constitution. Western Native Voice was able to resume its community ballot collection strategy and encourage voters to take advantage of Election Day registration. “We had people, even in our Billings office, coming in to register to vote on Election Day. I know that it was important. [Election Day registration] was well used, which was always the case for Native communities,” Sunchild added. “It was good to see that we fought so hard and really stood up for this and it was utilized and it was something that turned out to be necessary.”
Western Native Voice’s get-out-the-vote efforts also included offering rides to the polls, a service that became even more important when parts of the state were hit by extreme cold and bad weather on Election Day. Despite anecdotal successes, Sunchild noted that overall turnout was not great among Montana’s Native American community, qualifying that fact with the lack of a U.S. Senate race on the top of the ticket.
An agreement entered less than a week before Election Day ensured voters in York County, Pennsylvania had access to Spanish-language materials and assistance.
Maria Gutierrez, the senior director of membership at CASA, a nonprofit dedicated to Pennsylvania’s immigrant and Latino communities, moved from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania two years ago. In a conversation with Democracy Docket, Gutierrez described how the Latino community in the Keystone State has rapidly increased in recent years. In fact, according to 2020 census data, the Hispanic and Latino population in the state grew by 45% over the past decade; in York County, the center of a legal controversy leading up to Election Day, that increase was 61%.
Before and after the 2022 primary elections, CASA spoke with York County voters about their experiences. Many were registered, but decided not to vote. “The reason that they gave us was that they do not understand the process: The process is in English, the ballot is in English, all the signs at the polling location are in English,” Gutierrez said. “They felt like that exercise is not really for them.”
“We began talking with the York County commissioners and we expressed to them that we have a community here that is telling us that they do not feel comfortable with the process, that they don’t have access to language,” Gutierrez continued. “There was a time some weeks before the election that they decided not to continue communicating with us.” That was when CASA, supported by the legal group Latino Justice, filed a lawsuit against the commissioners.
Enacted in 1965, the VRA is a multifaceted federal law that created legal protections for many different voter groups. For example, Section 4(e) is not a widely known provision, but focuses on language access specifically for Puerto Ricans. CASA invoked Section 4(e) and was able to enter into an agreement with York County less than a week before Election Day. This agreement ensured that Spanish-language election materials, signage and assistance would be available on Nov. 8. In turn, Gutierrez described Election Day as a “festivity.” While the group doesn’t have the specific figures yet about how many voters in their community turned out or how many polling locations had language access, Gutierrez said that the legal agreement made a big impact: “It’s a huge difference when you have volunteers that are Latino, that speak their language, welcoming them in and congratulating them that they are showing up.” CASA volunteers visited many polling locations throughout York County on that day, witnessing a “huge mobilization of Latinos” compared to the primary election.
“I felt like this exercise is what it is about,” Gutierrez concluded. “We belong to this country, we live there, and voting for the candidate of their choice is part of the process.”
Just days before the election, a group tried — and failed — to exclude military absentee ballots in Wisconsin.
Will Attig, the executive director of Union Veterans Council, received a call around 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night, four days before Election Day. He was alerted about a lawsuit filed by a group of voters, including a veterans organization, trying to halt the counting of Wisconsin absentee ballots completed by voters in the military. Pointing to an isolated and intentional fraudulent incident, the lawsuit argued that “vulnerability” in Wisconsin’s system for distributing military absentee ballots “has been exposed.”
“I was trying to take a night off. The minute we heard that, my night off changed pretty quickly,” Attig explained to Democracy Docket. “We started to work pretty hard to bring awareness to the issue…By Saturday morning, I was talking to reporters from the Washington Post, so I think we had a pretty good turnaround when it came to our response to an outrageous act.” What started as a media blitz transformed into the Union Veterans Council intervening in the lawsuit. “Were we prepared to do whatever we could to ensure every military member from Wisconsin could have their vote counted on Election Day? Yes.”
The litigation moved rapidly. A hearing was held on Monday, Nov. 7, at the end of which the judge denied the plaintiffs’ request to separate military absentee ballots from the rest of the ballots. Attig described his concern that if the lawsuit prevailed, not only would military absentee ballots be separated, but they would ultimately not be counted. “The simple idea right now that there are Americans deployed all across the country, all across the world, some from Wisconsin, some not…The fact that these people who are actively defending our democracy, the most heroic and patriotic people we have, the 1%, the fact that there was a group of people trying to disenfranchise those American heroes as voters, it was totally outrageous in my mind,” Attig emphasized. “I cannot explain how disappointed I am in the fact that fellow veterans did this and they did it as a political ploy. Infuriating is probably a better word for it.”
Vassar College had to fight for an on-campus polling location, though required by New York law.
Another down-to-the-wire Election Day lawsuit took place in Dutchess County, New York, home to Vassar College. The New York State Legislature enacted a law earlier this year that requires polling places be offered at all colleges in the state that have over 300 registered voters. Yet, even though Vassar College — with over 1,000 registered voters — had made such a request, the Dutchess County Board of Elections did not follow through. At Vassar’s Office of Community-Engaged Learning, the priority was always to inform students about their rights and voting options. Jean Hinkley, the office’s assistant director, explained: “For students that were registered here in Dutchess County at their Vassar address, we always have a shuttle that goes to the polling location — well, multiple locations because Vassar is actually separated into three election districts.” But, the Election Day plan then “changed overnight.”
On Nov. 1, the League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Valley filed a lawsuit to compel the county’s commissioners to operate an on-campus polling location. Two days later, a court granted that request, but the Republican Dutchess County commissioner continued to drag his feet. It was unclear if anything would be implemented in time. On the Monday before Election Day, the logistics still remained up in the air before an appellate court confirmed the Nov. 3 order. By the afternoon, photos showed voting equipment being moved onto the Vassar College campus.
“I’m really grateful that there were a lot of supporters on campus that have been involved in these conversations with the board of elections since the beginning. We relied on those people for their support,” Hinkley said, before elaborating on the last minute push to inform students about the new polling location: relying on peer voting advisors, Vassar’s app, social media and all-day tabling to share updates.
“I don’t have the statistics about percentages or how many students voted, but from my observation, I’m going to assume that it was a greater number than in 2018,” Hinkley said. “I think just the ease of walking from one class to another and just being able to go and vote had a huge impact.” Additionally, any student — no matter which of the three state legislative districts their university address fell into — could use the central polling place on campus. Other community members, including faculty, staff and their families, also benefited from the additional access.