April showers bring long legislative hours and, with them, new voter suppression laws and subsequent litigation. So far in 2023, we’ve already seen a strict photo ID law out of Idaho get challenged in court and we are monitoring six states that close up their legislative shops this month.
The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to issue rulings in two landmark voting rights lawsuits, Merrill v. Milligan and Moore v. Harper (and might not do so for a few more months). In the meantime, we’re also watching the Court’s docket to see if it’ll take up two pending petitions, one that originates from a felony disenfranchisement lawsuit out of Mississippi and another that invokes the radical independent state legislature theory over Ohio’s congressional map. North Carolina remains in the spotlight this month after the state Supreme Court and its newly elected Republican majority made the unprecedented decision to rehear two lawsuits that were decided mere months ago by the then-Democratic majority; decisions could come down at any point.
Below we outline cases with courtroom activities or filings to look out for this month. This is not an exhaustive list — new lawsuits will be filed, and pending cases are subject to scheduling conflicts, delays or case developments that change the course of litigation. Keep an eye on our Cases page for any developments in these lawsuits and others.
Voting rights litigation: what to expect.
Many lawsuits are awaiting crucial movement that could happen at any time. In particular, we’re waiting to see if the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determines if a district court correctly struck down provisions of Florida’s omnibus voter suppression law, Senate Bill 90; if a Pennsylvania court upholds a Republican-backed law expanding mail-in voting after a Republican lawsuit challenged it and if multiple Wisconsin lawsuits over mail-in voting are resolved.
Key dates: Hearing on April 21, 2023
Back in October 2021, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa filed a lawsuit in Iowa state court challenging the state’s failure to provide non-English election materials to voters with limited English proficiency. The law at the center of this suit is the state’s “English-only Law,” which mandates that all political documents from the state “shall be in the English language.” This lawsuit focuses on an exception to this law, which states that translated materials are allowed if they are “necessary to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America or the Constitution of the State of Iowa.” LULAC points out that there are a “significant number of Iowa citizens of voting age with limited English proficiency—25,428 as of 2020 per the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey…Among that number, Spanish speakers make up 58.7% of voting-age citizens with limited English proficiency, and 19% of eligible Latino voters in Iowa have limited proficiency in English.” Given that “[q]uantitative research demonstrates that providing non-English voting materials significantly increases rates of voter registration and voting among Latino citizens,” the lack of “access to multilingual election materials results in reduced rates of voter registration and turnout among individuals with limited English proficiency,” according to LULAC.
LULAC asks the state court to grant its motion for summary judgment (meaning rule in its favor based on the evidence presented without going to a trial) and declare “that voting materials—including ballots, registration and voting notices, forms, instructions, and other materials and information relating to the electoral process—are a form of language usage necessary to secure the right to vote and, therefore, are exempt from the English-only mandate under” Iowa law. On the opposing side, the defendants (the Iowa secretary of state and election officials) ask the court to rule in their favor and hold that LULAC’s claims fail both because it lacks the ability to challenge this law and its arguments about the law’s exceptions are meritless. At the hearing on April 21, the court will hear arguments from both sides and determine if one or neither party prevails. (If the motions for summary judgment are denied, the case will proceed to a trial.)
Key dates: Hearing on April 27, 2023
In December 2022, two Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, voters who are members of a right-wing group called the Lycoming County Patriots sued the county over the results of the November 2020 general election (that year is not a typo). The “patriots” request that the Lycoming County commissioners vote to conduct a forensic audit of the 2020 election results because the commissioners were provided “evidence of fraud, numerous irregularities, and violations of the Election Code” but failed to properly investigate these claims. In response to these allegations, the county points out that the plaintiffs failed to follow state procedures to challenge the results of an election, namely that any “petitions must have been filed within five days of completion of the Election Board’s computation of the vote — which would have occurred over two years ago.” Due to these procedural missteps, the county asks the state trial court to put an end to this lawsuit; a hearing on the matter was originally scheduled for March 10, but was rescheduled for April 27.
Key dates: Hearing on April 4, 2023
In 2023, the Republican-controlled Tennessee General Assembly enacted House Bill 48, which reduces the size of Nashville’s Metro Council from 40 members to 20 members and directs the city to draw new districts reflecting this decreased configuration in time for the upcoming August 2023 elections. This legislation affecting the state’s most populous (and most diverse) city was immediately challenged in court, with one lawsuit filed by the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County and another filed by local residents and community leaders. Both lawsuits argue that H.B. 48 violates multiple sections of the Tennessee Constitution, including its Home Rule Amendment that vests cities and local governments with the power to change their own charters via local referendum. The plaintiffs summarize the move as an “unprecedented disenfranchisement of the voters of Metro Nashville” that is not only illegal, but also ripe for confusion: “Not only does the Metro Council Reduction Act force Metro Nashville to restructure its legislative body, but it does so on a timeline that is impracticable, fails to provide time for sufficient community input and deliberation, and is sure to cause chaos in the election machinery, as well as confusion and distrust among voters.” A hearing on a motion to temporarily block the enforcement of H.B. 48 is slated for April 4, after which the trial court will determine the immediate fate of the new law and, subsequently, Nashville’s government structure.
Redistricting litigation: what to expect.
Key dates: Potential developments over the next month
Last month, the North Carolina Supreme Court reheard Harper v. Hall, a previously decided redistricting case out of North Carolina that blocked multiple maps for being partisan gerrymanders. Harper is the state-level case that evolved into Moore v. Harper, the case raising the independent state legislature theory that is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court’s decision to rehear Harper following the majority’s recent Republican takeover was unprecedented and caused concern not only about the fate of partisan gerrymandering claims in North Carolina but also about the fate of Moore in the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court asked the parties in Moore to weigh in on whether the Court still has jurisdiction (meaning the legal authority) to decide the case given the reopening of the state-level case. Briefing on that question concluded on March 20 and it’s unclear whether the Supreme Court will change course in Moore based on the rehearing of the state-level case. The North Carolina Supreme Court could also issue its decision affirming or rejecting its prior rulings at any time, so much remains up in the air in the Tar Heel State.