Looking Back at Voting Rights Litigation in 2021
2021 was a momentous year in the voting rights world. Virtual courtrooms were swamped as lawsuits were filed against new voter suppression laws fueled by Republican claims of voter fraud and the need for “election integrity.” The start of the decennial redistricting process also ushered in lawsuits as state legislatures and commissions began redrawing districts that will determine representation for the next decade. In today’s piece, we highlight some major litigation wins for voting rights from the past year and preview what’s to come in 2022.
Over the past year, courts across the country decided significant cases that led to the expansion of voting rights.
In New Hampshire, a strict voter residency law was struck down after the state Supreme Court found that it imposed “unreasonable burdens on the right to vote.” This was a huge victory particularly for young, low-income and minority voters or those who have recently moved in the state — groups who are less likely to have adequate documentation for strict residency requirements.
Texas agreed to permanently offer simultaneous voter registration when an eligible voter renews or updates his or her driver’s licenses or ID cards online. This win comes after civil rights activists and Democrats fought the state’s failure to provide this option in violation of federal law.
In Indiana, a federal court of appeals held that a state law that purged Indiana voters from registration rolls without following adequate notification procedures violated federal law. The court issued a permanent injunction barring Indiana officials from canceling any voter’s registration unless they have a request or confirmation in writing asking to cancel registration or the officials follow the proper notice and comment process outlined by federal law — a win that will protect voters from being incorrectly or arbitrarily removed from registration rolls.
Lawsuits fought to ensure voters had an adequate chance to participate in local and statewide elections.
In Florida, voters sued Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) over his failure to call three special elections to fill vacancies in three majority-Black legislative districts. By mid-October, DeSantis had not scheduled the special elections, even though over 75 days had passed since the three legislators resigned to run for an open congressional seat (for which DeSantis was also sued for failing to call a timely special election) and the 2022 legislative session begins on Jan. 11. Soon after this lawsuit was filed, DeSantis called special elections for the three vacant districts.
During Virginia’s high-profile gubernatorial race this fall, an important voting rights win came out of the election. Due to worry over the timing of absentee ballot delivery, completion and processing, the Democratic Party of Virginia sued the U.S. Postal Service over its failure to process and deliver election-related mail in a timely manner. As a result of this lawsuit, the parties reached an agreement and the Postal Service outlined procedures to prioritize election-related mail for the November election.
Litigation challenging voter suppression laws was top of mind in key states this year.
Dozens of lawsuits were filed in states across the country to challenge new and old voter suppression laws. Florida, Georgia and Texas received a lot of pushback for their far-reaching voter suppression laws enacted in response to Republicans’ unfounded claims of “voter fraud” during the 2020 election cycle.
In Florida, four lawsuits challenging provisions of its new voter suppression law, Senate Bill 90, are headed to a consolidated trial early next year after a federal district court judge denied attempts by Republican officials to throw out the cases in full.
In Georgia, there are currently nine pending lawsuits against the state’s blatantly restrictive new law, Senate Bill 202. Republican officials, along with Republican national committees that intervened to defend the law, tried to get eight of the suits tossed, but a district court judge rejected those requests earlier this month. A ninth suit was filed later and is currently in a different stage of litigation. All eight lawsuits will move forward and claims against S.B. 202 will be litigated to determine if the challenged provisions violate the U.S. Constitution and/or the Voting Rights Act.
After many attempts by the state’s Republicans, Texas passed Senate Bill 1 earlier this fall, resulting in seven lawsuits being filed across federal and state courts. The six federal lawsuits, filed by voting and civil rights activists, Texas voters and the U.S. Department of Justice, were consolidated under La Union del Pueblo Entero v. Abbott. Litigation will continue in the new year.
In the shadows of S.B. 1, Texas passed other restrictive voting measures that can burden and disenfranchise voters all the same. An ongoing lawsuit is challenging Texas’ “wet signature” law, which requires individuals who submit their registration applications electronically or through fax to provide a copy of their application with their original signature signed with pen on paper. Another lawsuit is arguing Texas’ new residency restrictions for voter registration violate multiple provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
Additionally, voting and civil rights advocates and Democrats are fighting new voter suppression laws in Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and Montana. One Kansas lawsuit has already led to a federal court blocking a law that sought to prohibit nonpartisan out-of-state organizations from providing mail-in ballot applications to registered voters and criminalize the mailing of personalized early voting applications.
Voter suppression laws that were on the books before 2021 also ended up in court, as lawsuits were filed against New York’s decades-old line-warming ban and Virginia’s arbitrary deadline for receiving notice to cure a defective absentee ballot and its requirement that voters disclose their full Social Security number to register to vote. A lawsuit is also challenging Iowa’s failure to provide non-English voting materials, specifically Spanish language materials, to voters with limited English proficiency across the state.
Along with passing laws that suppress voters, Republicans also aim to limit voting access through litigation. Groups that want to protect access to the ballot box are also fighting a conservative lawsuit in Wisconsin that seeks to ban drop boxes after their widespread use during the 2020 election cycle and another lawsuit in Colorado that’s trying to purge voters from registration rolls.
Redistricting litigation remains ongoing.
Redistricting has been front and center in the election world during the span of 2021, with lawsuits filed before full census data was even released mid-August. Courts play an important role in the redistricting process, helping to ensure that new maps meet redistricting criteria. While redistricting and related litigation will continue next year (check out where each state is in the redistricting process in our December Redistricting Roundup), some important cases are already in motion.
Litigation is ongoing in Illinois, where a federal court has taken control of the redistricting process for legislative maps after multiple suits were filed. Impasse litigation dominates courts in Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states with governments that have historically not been able to come to an agreement on new maps, necessitating that the courts step in (Wisconsin has already failed to approve new maps after Gov. Tony Evers (D) vetoed maps passed by the Republican-led Legislature).
Additionally, lawsuits were filed in Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas over new legislative and congressional maps. These lawsuits challenge new maps for a variety of reasons, including that the maps dilute the voting strength of minority populations, legislators used race as a predominant factor in redistricting without a valid reason or new districts are gerrymandered in favor of one political party in violation of a state constitution.
Fast-moving cases of note:
While most of this litigation will continue throughout 2022, a few cases are moving quickly: Oral argument were held in early December about Ohio’s new legislative maps and the Supreme Court of Ohio can make a decision on the legality of the maps at any point. Multiple challenges to the congressional map, passed after the legislative maps, are also being litigated at lightning speed.
In North Carolina, a flurry of court activity has resulted in the pause of the candidate filing period for all races across the state, along with a two-month delay in primary elections, while litigation over new legislative and congressional maps proceeds. The North Carolina Supreme Court reinstated the delay after a trial court and the full North Carolina Court of Appeals declined to do so. The trial court will determine if the new maps are constitutional by mid-January.
Early wins across the country:
Some early victories have already emerged from this redistricting cycle. In September, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by a Republican state senator and a group of voters. The lawsuit sought to argue that new redistricting laws — specifically, a new law that dictates that the state will now count prisoners at their last known address (as opposed to the prison in which they are incarcerated in a process called prison gerrymandering) — would dilute Republican voting power in rural Virginia.
Oregon was the first state to have its new maps litigated and ruled on by a court this cycle. Oregon courts rejected multiple Republicans lawsuits against the state’s new legislative and congressional maps, dismissing GOP claims that the new maps were Democratic gerrymanders that did not follow the Oregon Constitution.
What’s next for voting rights litigation in the new year?
Voting rights litigation will only ramp up during 2022, especially given the midterm elections and Republicans’ desire to limit access to the ballot box and sow doubt in our country’s election system. Voting rights advocates will continue to litigate their cases challenging new voter suppression laws and the fight for fair maps will proceed in state and federal courts, with the hope that the 2022 elections are held with representative districts in place.
We’ll keep track of all this important litigation on our Cases page and give updates on the progress of these cases, including trials, hearings and any important intermediate court decisions that impact voters.
As always, democracy remains on the docket.