The State Court Rulings That Have Reshaped Voting Rights

Mutiple objects colored in blue and red represetnting different aspects of voting, including photo IDs, the infamous gerrymandering cartoon, voters in line, drop box, mail-in ballots and more.

Over the last few weeks, all eyes have been on the U.S. Supreme Court as we awaited the Court’s decisions in Allen v. Milligan and Moore v. Harper. But on the same day the decision in Moore dropped, another important decision came down from a Pennsylvania state court that rejected a challenge to a state law that permits no-excuse mail-in voting. While Moore might have gotten the most attention, the ruling in Pennsylvania is a reminder of just how important state court rulings are to democracy. After all, most aspects of election law are covered by state laws, so state courts play a preeminent role in protecting voting rights.

With the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirming in Moore the ability of state courts to review election laws, state courts will continue to play a pivotal role in defining the contours of American elections. Some recent rulings by state courts demonstrate how they can use the gavel to  advance — or hinder — voting rights in their respective states.

In Kansas, the state Supreme Court allowed a partisan gerrymandered map to stay in place.

After Kansas Republicans enacted a new congressional map over Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D) veto, voters challenged the map in court for being a partisan gerrymander in violation of the Kansas Constitution. A trial court agreed, finding that the congressional map both benefited Republicans and diluted the voting strength of voters of color.

However, the Kansas Supreme Court disagreed, finding that partisan gerrymandering wasn’t suitable for courts to rule on until “such a time as the Legislature or the people of Kansas choose to codify” a standard to evaluate partisan gerrymandering into law. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ race-based claims. While the plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices declined to hear the case. As a result, the Republicans’ map remained in place and, due to the Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause, Kansas voters can’t turn to their state courts for protections against partisan gerrymanders. 

Michigan’s state Supreme Court stepped in to preserve the ballot measure process.

Last year, Michigan voters approved a package of pro-voting reforms and protected access to reproductive health care. But if it weren’t for the state Supreme Court, those measures would not have made it onto the ballot in the first place.

The Michigan Board of Canvassers, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, initially deadlocked on approving the two measures for the statewide ballot. This deadlock would normally have prevented the measures from being added to the ballot. Thankfully, the state Supreme Court stepped in, ordering that both measures be added to the ballot. 

The court concluded the Republican canvassers had overstepped their authority. Chief Justice Bridget McCormack (D) further admonished the Republicans for trying “to disenfranchise millions of Michiganders” because “they think they have identified a technicality that allows them to do so.” With the court’s intervention, Michiganders had an opportunity to weigh in on the two proposals, ultimately enacting meaningful voting reforms and protecting the right to reproductive freedom. 

By striking down a suppressive law, New Hampshire state courts eased voting for young people.

In 2017, New Hampshire enacted Senate Bill 3, which amended the state’s voter registration laws to require proof of residency. To vote, New Hampshire residents had to submit evidence of their domicile and, as if that wasn’t burdensome enough, the law also didn’t provide voters with clear guidance about what would count as proof of residency. Additionally, voters who registered within 30 days of an election and didn’t submit this proof faced criminal penalties.

A group of college-aged voters then filed a lawsuit against S.B. 3. In 2021, the New Hampshire Supreme Court struck down the law in its entirety, finding that it “imposes unreasonable burdens on the right to vote” and violates the state constitution. As a result, New Hampshire voters no longer have to meet S.B. 3’s vague requirements to prove their residency.

After flipping red in the midterms, the North Carolina Supreme Court handed down three disastrous decisions for democracy.

Nowhere is the importance of state court decisions more evident than in North Carolina. In a series of state Supreme Court decisions in 2022 and 2023, the court radically reshaped democracy in the Tar Heel State.

First, in 2022, the court overturned the redistricting plans passed by the state Legislature, finding them to be partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution. The decision led to the implementation of new maps for 2022 that were less skewed towards Republicans; for example, the remedial (meaning, temporary) congressional map yielded a delegation of seven Republicans and seven Democrats, roughly mirroring the partisan breakdown of the state as a whole. Later in December, the court upheld the new state House map, but struck down the state Senate map for being gerrymandered, again.

Also in December, the court blocked a law delineating acceptable photo IDs for voting in the state, reasoning that the law was enacted with “impermissible” racially discriminatory intent. Both decisions represented major victories for voting rights in the state.

However, the court flipped from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority in the 2022 midterm elections. In early 2023, the new majority agreed to rehear both of these cases and ended up reversing itself in both instances, ruling that partisan gerrymander claims can’t be decided by North Carolina courts and that the plaintiffs failed to meaningfully prove the photo ID law had a discriminatory impact or intent. The newly Republican court also upheld the state’s felony disenfranchisement law, all major defeats for voting rights.

Democracy was quite literally strengthened and then weakened in North Carolina, all because of a series of state court decisions. What happened also highlights the importance of judicial elections; if Democrats had won in 2022, the situation would look very different in the state right now.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken many steps to protect democracy, but also deadlocked ahead of the 2022 election.

Over the last few years, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has made many important decisions related to voting rights. In 2018, for example, the court ruled that partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution and overturned the state’s Republican gerrymander. Similarly, the court took over redistricting in 2022 when Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and the Republican Legislature reached an impasse and ordered the implementation of a fair map.

In the area of voting rights, the court extended the deadline to return mail-in ballots in 2020 and upheld the constitutionality of the law permitting mail-in voting in 2022. Both of these were important wins for democracy, helping ensure people could vote amidst a pandemic and permitting most voters in Pennsylvania to vote by mail.

Most recently, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is most notable for what it didn’t do. In advance of the 2022 elections, the court deadlocked over the issue of whether mail-in ballots without dates or with incorrect dates should be counted. As a result, the court instructed counties to set such ballots aside. Later analysis suggested thousands of ballots went uncounted. 

The Washington Supreme Court upheld state-level voting protections after a local Republican official intervened.

Since the rollback of the federal Voting Rights Act, many states have passed their own, state-level versions. One such state is Washington, which enacted the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) in 2018. The law is designed to ensure “minority groups have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice or influence the outcome of an election.”

This year, the Washington Supreme Court heard arguments about the constitutionality of the WVRA for the first time. A Republican intervenor appealed a settlement in a lawsuit regarding elections to the Franklin County Commission, arguing that the law amounted to a “racial gerrymander.” In June, the court rejected this argument, unanimously upholding the law. The decision is both a victory for minority voters in the Evergreen State and a reaffirmation of the importance of state legislation to protect voting rights.

Wisconsin’s highest court banned drop boxes across the entire state.

In perhaps the biggest setback for voting rights at a state court, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that the use of drop boxes violates state law and banned their use in Wisconsin elections. In an unhinged, conspiratorial opinion, Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley repeated falsehoods about drop boxes and lent credence to claims that the 2020 election was tainted in Wisconsin. The decision makes it harder for Wisconsinites to vote, a situation that could become even worse due to uncertainty over who will oversee elections in the state next year.

The battle for voting rights will largely be fought in state courts.

All of these state court decisions, spanning multiple different issues from drop boxes to partisan gerrymandering, are just a sampling of the many state courts ruling on issues that are important to democracy. Due to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Moore, litigants will likely feel emboldened to continue bringing claims in state courts. As we move into 2024 and beyond, paying attention to the courts in all 50 states is essential to understanding the state of voting in our country.